A coalition of groups has announced its intention to sue the National Park Service over the off-road vehicle plan approved for the Addition lands in Big Cypress National Preserve.
The legal move was not unexpected, as several conservation groups last fall had voiced concerns over the plan, which would allow upwards of 130 miles of primary off-road vehicle routes -- and an undetermined number of secondary routes -- to be threaded through the Addition lands.
The Addition parcel is a 147,000-acre tract in the northeastern corner of the preserve. It was given to the Park Service in 1996 in 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 in February.
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."
On Wednesday a Notice of Intent to Sue (attached below) was filed by the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the South Florida Wildlands Association, and the Florida Biodiversity Project. Filing the notice on behalf of the groups was the Washington, D.C., law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal. By filing the notice, the groups give the Park Service, Interior Department, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days to correct potential violations of the Endangered Species Act cited by the groups.
Specifically, the groups maintain that the management plan will be detrimental to such endangered species as the Florida panther and red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as to threatened species such as the Eastern indigo snake, that reside in the Addition lands.
“We are asking the federal agencies involved to protect three highly-endangered species: the Florida Panther, the Indigo Snake and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker,” said Bradley Stark, Esq., representing the Sierra Club. “This letter is intended to provide the agencies with an opportunity to reconsider whether this level of off-road vehicle use is allowable under federal law considering the anticipated impacts to wildlife, habitat, and one of the last pieces of wilderness that remains east of the Rocky Mountains.”
The Notice of Intent argues that the Big Cypress ORV plan would carve up thousands of acres of habitat essential to the survival of the highly endangered Florida panther.
Among the impacts that the agencies failed to even analyze was ORV traffic and motorized hunting that will significantly diminish available prey for the predatory cat, the groups maintain.
“The National Park Service is well aware of the critical importance of these lands for numerous threatened and endangered plants and animals in south Florida,” said Matthew Schwartz of South Florida Wildlands Association. “The agency could and should have chosen a course of action which puts protection of irreplaceable natural resources above motorized recreation.”
In its criticism of the selected alternative, the EPA in January expressed concern about ORVs “fragmenting the landscape into a disorganized and destructive web of trails and roads.” EPA also predicted increased air, soil and water pollution
“These lands represent the largest remaining tract of undesignated wilderness in Florida – a scarce and precious treasure of the American people,” added Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project, pointing out that the impacts from parking lots and access points into formerly undisturbed lands were also completely overlooked.
If no measures are taken by the agencies to bring themselves into compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the groups intend to bring their legal concerns under the Endangered Species Act and other statutes that they maintain were overlooked in the decision-making process into federal court.
“Big Cypress is supposed to be a natural preserve, not a motorized recreation area,” said Jeff Ruch of PEER, noting that the Park Service improperly stripped wilderness eligibility from 40,000 acres of Preserve lands that were then re-designated for ORV trails. “This Big Cypress plan represents a new low for the National Park Service.”