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Traveler's View: The National Park Service Failed Its Mission With Plan For Addition Lands at Big Cypress National Preserve


With its management plan for the Addition lands of Big Cypress National Preserve, the National Park Service has placed more emphasis on off-roading than on protecting the Florida panther, one of the most-endangered mammals in North America. Top photo of swamp buggy ruts in the Bear Island area of Big Cypress by Matthew Schwartz, middle photo NPS, bottom photo of Florida panther by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Faced with a wondrous opportunity to truly preserve a large swath of Florida still bearing wilderness characteristics, one that can play a critical role in the recovery of North America's most endangered mammal, the National Park Service instead looked the other way.

In doing so, the agency seems to have both ignored its mandate from the National Park Service Organic Act to, above all else, conserve "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein" for future generations, and tossed dirt on Interior Department promises to "ensure and maintain the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities used in Departmental decision making."

At stake was the future of 147,000 acres in the northeastern corner of the preserve, a section of land known as the "Addition" for its connection to the preserve in 1996 as the result of a land swap with the state of Florida. At the time, Congress directed the Park Service to ban off-road vehicles and hunting in the Addition until a management plan could be developed. That plan was released in its final form in November, and officially approved by the Park Service's Southeast regional director earlier this month.

By adopting its preferred alternative, one criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, members of Congress, and conservation groups, the Park Service chose to "maximize motorized access, provide the least amount of wilderness, and develop limited new hiking only trails." With this approach, the Park Service apparently was not swayed by moderate, long-term adverse impacts to water flows, to the control of non-native vegetation, or to the Florida panther the plan would deliver.

Cast aside was the "environmentally preferred" alternative, which would "emphasize resource preservation, restoration, and research while providing recreational opportunities with limited facilities and support. This alternative would provide the maximum amount of wilderness, no ORV use, and minimal new facilities for visitor contact along I-75."

Under the selected plan, more than one-third of the Addition could be accessed by motorized vehicle, either ponderous swamp buggies used by hunters and wildlife tours or motor boats. To provide for that access, preserve officials have agreed to allow up to 130 miles of primary ORV trails -- centered in a half-mile wide corridor -- in the area, along with as many as 650 ORV permits annually. What's uncertain, though, is how many miles of secondary trails might be creased through the landscape, how big of a footprint would be occupied by two "primitive" campgrounds, and whether the trails will turn proposed wilderness into "islands."

Critics such as U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida, can't understand why the Park Service authorized so many miles of ORV trails in light of the ORV access elsewhere in Big Cypress.

"Most of the 582,000 acres of the preserve are ... open to motorized recreation for up to 2,000 permitted ORV owners who can enjoy motor vehicles as a way of experiencing the Big Cypress National Preserve," the congressman wrote in a letter to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

In light of the existing off-road-vehicle opportunities in the preserve, and when just 7 percent of Big Cypress visitors are interested in off-road-vehicle travel, as noted in a 2007 survey conducted for the Park Service by the University of Idaho's Park Studies Unit, can this increased ORV network be justified by the Park Service?

But this is not an issue solely of ORV access versus wilderness preservation. At risk to this management plan is a biologically rich and diverse landscape of plants, animals, fish, and birds that already is surrounded by pressing, and stressing, development. The West Indian manatee, an endangered species, relies on waterways in the Addition, while the red-cockaded woodpecker, also endangered, utilizes its forests. And then there's the Florida panther, a creature that has struggled to survive the urbanization of Florida.

At one point there were so few panthers in the region that the Park Service brought in cougars from Texas to bolster the gene pool. While there currently are thought to be 100-120 Florida panthers in the wild, perhaps a third of those residing in Big Cypress, continued population growth requires suitable habitat. Allowing the Addition to be sliced up with ORV trails does not aid this endeavor.

While Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos has said the preserve has all the panthers it can possibly contain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in critiquing the Park Service's preferred plan for the Addition, said it would create "long-term, moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the Florida panther..."

In other words, while Big Cypress might have all the panthers it can hold, this plan is not in the best interests for those that reside there. Is this how endangered species should be treated?

Already Big Cypress's panthers are showing signs of being crowded. According to the Florida Panther Net, which tracks Florida panthers, in 2010 at least three panthers died in the preserve, all the result of "intraspecific aggression," which arises when males fight over territory. One of those deaths occurred in the Addition tract.

Along with placing more pressure on panther territories, the half-mile-wide ORV routes and hunting pose a risk to populations of white-tailed deer, a key part of the panthers' prey base, something else the EPA voiced concern over. Indeed, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 3rd revision of its Florida Panther Recovery Plan, published in November 2008, the agency noted the importance of an abundant deer population to panther recovery, and how hunting pressure in the past had impacted that abundance.

The size, distribution, and abundance of available prey species are critical factors to the persistence of panthers in south Florida and often determine the extent of panther use of an area. A resident adult male puma generally consumes one deer-sized prey every 8 - 11 days; this frequency is 14 - 17 days for a resident female; and 3.3 days for a female with three 13-month-old kittens. Historically, hunting in the Big Cypress physiographic region has been a major traditional activity with many hunt camps throughout the region. With establishment of national and state parks, the numbers of hunt camps were decreased and additional hunting regulations that reduced hunting pressure on deer were implemented. Although deer densities are difficult to determine, the deer population appears to have steadily increased.

Despite data on the importance of wild-tailed deer to Florida panther survival, despite the absence of clear data on the current deer population, and despite information on how hunting can reduce that population, Big Cypress officials want to allow hunting to return to the Addition.

Add to the habitat issues concerns over what ORV use could do to the preserve's water quality. In 2001 the U.S. Geological Survey had this to say about ORV use in Big Cypress:

ORV use in Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY) has impacted wildlife populations and habitats through modifications to water flow patterns (direction and velocity) and water quality, soil displacement and compaction, direct vegetation damage, disturbance to foraging individuals, and, ultimately, overall suitability of habitats for wildlife.

In its comments to the Park Service, the EPA, in generalizing ORV impacts to public lands, said:

EPA is concerned about the impacts of motorized traffic that is growing rapidly on the public lands. Large segments of the hunting and fishing community, for example, believe that off-road vehicles are taking a toll on the land and its wildlife and are detracting from the experience of non-motorized visitors. Evidence is mounting that ORVs pose a serious threat to wildlife, water, soil, plants, and the rest of the natural world.

Of primary concern to EPA is that ORV's use is fragmenting the landscape into a disorganized and destructive web of trails and roads. They point to severe impacts to the soil, the spread of invasive plant seeds, and the disruption to sensitive and endangered wildlife as cause for regulatory intervention. Insufficient enforcement of existing regulations has resulted in thousands of miles of unauthorized routes across the landscape.

The dramatic increase in ORV use on public lands can be responsible for a host of adverse impacts on wildlife, vegetation, soils, water quality, and nonmotorized recreationists. The contamination of air, water, and soil by ORV pollution is among the most significant of these impacts.

Oddly silent has been Park Service Director Jarvis, who, immediately after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, cited stewardship as one of four areas he wanted to stress during his tenure:

Stewardship of our natural and cultural resources has always been a core value of mine. Our mission is to manage these treasured landscapes unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. This mission is being challenged, particularly by global warming. But at the same time, these challenges are pushing us to think and act at the ecosystem scale, creating unprecedented partnerships with other land managers. We must apply the very best science and scholarly research. To do so, I will create the position of Science Advisor to the Director. As stewards of our national parks, especially considering the challenges of climate change, we must be visible leaders using the sustainability of our facilities and operations, to demonstrate the best in energy and water conservation.

While national preserves are indeed open to different uses than national parks, the Park Service nevertheless is bound to the over-arching mandate of its Organic Act. There is no shortage of off-road lands to enjoy in the country, but there is a shortage of officially designated wilderness and, in the case of the panther, precious few acres of habitat to help this cat survive.

When you consider the fate of the Florida panther, the sprawling development elsewhere in Florida and the impacts that is having on the Everglades, and the overall lack of sub-tropical wilderness, this plan doesn't make sense and should be overturned by Mr. Jarvis.

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Kurt I am somewhat disappointed in your above article. Having spoken with you on the phone quite a while ago and read many of your articles here I got the impression you were an honest and reasonably balanced reporter of issues. I will not take the time here to debate you point by point on this article but will say the photo used here to create the false impression that all ORV trails look like the one shown and that they are everywhere is nothing less than misinformation and sound bite excerpted, out of context and designed to create bias in my opinion. For every photo like this one could take 10,000 showing scenes with no efrfect from the traditional ORV use there. I would expect this from the extreme enviro-zealots at work in Florida to obstruct humans from seeing all areas that their hard earned government wasted income pays for.
Actually to me it seems that someone like one of Sierra Club's leaders down here wrote this, supplied it to you then you toned his usually heated rhetoric down and passed it on to the vulnerable folks that look to this site for accurate balanced information.
Undersdtand this - NPS ran a the tightest NEPA process I've ever seen (and I have seen quite a few). I do not think any law suit will penetrate it or flip this plan but if that remote possibility happens everyone here should also understand that the State can take this place away from the Feds due to a Florida Statute allowing that to happen in certain situations. Our State is about fed up with the Feds and with a new Governor all is possible.
So, keep on pushing and watch where the ripples from the rocks thrown into the Big Cypress Swamp's waters lead.

All I think you should do is add the words "Op-Ed" to the title of the article. In fact you should do more op eds. But I think it would be reasonable to add it to the title to distinguish it from articles that are not opinion.

Mike, I think the headline specifies the op-ed nature, ie. "Traveler's View."

You're right I missed it. Maybe my eyes look for something with the word opinion in it, but definitely that makes it clear, my mistake. Maybe the other poster missed it too.

The writer of this article is in need of a history lesson of the Preserve, or a least write his own article. This article was very repetitive of the same misinformation that has been spread for a good number of years.
The paragraph below for example is completely false even before the designated trail system we had access to less than .o5% of the preserve. Now we have even less.
("Most of the 582,000 acres of the preserve are ... open to motorized recreation for up to 2,000 permitted ORV owners who can enjoy motor vehicles as a way of experiencing the Big Cypress National Preserve," the congresswoman wrote in a letter to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.)
The NPS intentionally did not implement an ORV plan when they were supposed to in an effort to further erode Congress's original intent of the enabling act that created the whole Big Cypress.
The Addition land is supposed to manged with full access and traditional use.
The preferred alternative does not come close to what was promised.
The tons of taxpayers money wasted on the Panther project even after modern science has proven that there is no true sub-species.
Personal experience with panthers in my yard and hanging around several other properties I helped maintain in the Cypress has shown that ORV use much less humans bother the panthers. Cars in the middle of the day traveling down Loop Road and the cats don't even jump into the woods like deer would do.
then to use the 2001 US Geological Survey as a source for information really proves that the lack of research done to write this article. Their information was never groundtruthed or proven. in fact their information was so poor several square miles US GEO claimed were totally destroyed by ORV use had never had ORVs in the area.
But go ahead continue with the misinformation spread the manure of those who wish genocide of the traditional culture of the glades.

Frank, I was just in Big Cypress in November and damage from the ORV's was shameful. It was shocking to see our national lands being ripped up by boys (and girls) playing with their toys. It was also dangerous as MANY vehicles with ORV trailers were simply parked on the side of the road as the parking lots were full! Kurt's article is spot-on, the truth is hard to face. We are destroying this ecosystem and we will have to explain it to our grandkids, while we show them the pictures of what used to be.

Eric, who's traditional use and and what traditional cultures are you referring to?

Read the history of the Glades, read the record of the 93 congress, study the enabling act itself if you really want to know.
short version Hunting, fishing, frogging airboating and ORVs were to be included, We used to farm out there and we gave it up to stop the expansion of both coasts and we saw what the reality of the jetport and suburbia was bringing in our way of life.
Promises were made by the Department of Interior and so far they have done they can to eliminate the intent of the Preserve.
There is a lot of misconception about our use. what one poster calls toys are actually tools. You would have to build a buggy or an airboat to really understand that these are not toys. We created out of necessity in order to travel to many of our favorite spots to hunt, fish, frog & camp
Before multiculturalism was popular we were multicultural culture made up of blacks, Bahamians, Hispanics, Native Americans and whites.
Incrementally the DOI has taken away properties , regulated our uses to the point our children will never get to see the places our generation has or live the life we used to nor have the intimate relationship we have with the Cypress. The loss of access has increased even more this past decade and the places I had been able to take my children are no longer been accessible.
There is so much more but most folks don't have a clue. As far as folks whining about buggies and trails even at the height of use less than 1/2 of 1 percent of this area was ever impacted by buggies. Walk in 20- 50 feet away from a buggy trail and you will not believe how many miles you can walk without stumbling over another trail. But you better be in shape, It takes during the wet season sometimes 2 or 3 hours to travel from one hammock to another and only cover around a mile. Why we love this place I don't know but I can't live without it.

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