In a decision surely to draw criticism from conservationists, the National Park Service's Southeast regional director today approved a controversial management plan for the "Addition" lands at Big Cypress National Preserve.
In doing so, David Vela said the plan that will guide management of the 147,000 acres for the next 15-20 years "offers strong resource protection while providing for a great diversity of recreational opportunities, including off-road vehicle (ORV) use, hunting, hiking, biking, horseback riding and canoeing."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials said the plan's approval failed to uphold the Park Service's mandate for managing landscapes within the National Park System.
“The National Parks Conservation Association is disappointed by the plan released by the National Park Service, which undermines the protection of the unique resources of Big Cypress," said Kristen Brengel, NPCA's director of legislative and government affairs. "The Park Service has chosen to open wilderness lands and Florida panther habitat to intensive motorized off-road vehicle use. For decades, these lands within Big Cypress National Preserve have been protected for the public to enjoy as a natural area--to hike and view wildlife among other activities. Now, a final decision has been made to carve 130 miles of new off-road vehicle trails through this Florida panther habitat.
“This decision fails to uphold the conservation mission of the National Park Service. The plan casts aside laws and policies designed to preserve the natural beauty of the cypress swamp, and protect habitat for several endangered species such as the ghost orchid and Florida panther from an intrusive racetrack of trails and roadways.”
Soon after a draft of the plan came out in November, NPCA officials said it offered too little protection for the highly endangered Florida panther. Also criticizing the plan was the South Florida Wildlands Association, which said the plan gave away too much of the tract to ORV use.
"The Addition lands are a national treasure. Added to the 582,000 acres of the original preserve by The Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988, the Senate report accompanying this legislation referred to the Addition as 'one of the few remaining large parcels of pristine land left in Florida' and noted 'its environmental importance and beauty is unquestioned,'” the wildlands association said in a statement. "On the House side, the Addition was referred to as an area of 'unique wild beauty,' and as 'habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, including the Florida panther, the bald eagle, native orchids and many other species…'"
The swath of land located in the preserve's northeastern quadrant came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. At the time the Addition was added to Big Cypress, it was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed.
Under the management plan OKed today, preserve officials may allow up to 130 miles of ORV trails in the area along with as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Both the miles of ORV trails and the maximum number of permits would be delivered in phases under the plan.
While a draft version of the document recommended 85,862 acres of officially designated wilderness, the final plan proposes 47,067 acres of designated wilderness.
The Record of Decision, final EIS, and the Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be viewed on the preserve website at this page.
"This has been a long planning effort, and we are looking forward to beginning the implementation phase in partnership with our partners and stakeholders," said Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos in a release. "We have already begun our work to develop hunting regulations with our partners at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Also, a tremendous amount of progress has been made by the Florida Department of Transportation in developing the access points off Interstate 75 for our visitors to safely access the Addition. We are looking forward to formally proposing approximately 50,000 acres of wilderness within the Addition."
The final EIS includes a Wilderness Study that identifies lands that will be proposed to Congress for designation. The proposal will be first reviewed by NPS leadership, Department of the Interior, and the White House before making it to Congress for consideration.