How can the National Park Service, whose mission hinges predominantly on the preservation of the resources that fall within the National Park System, turn its back on 40,000 acres it deemed suitable for wilderness designation? That question is being investigated by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.
The Park Service has been highly criticized since last fall when it released its management plans for the "Addition" lands, a 147,000-acre tract in the preserve's northeastern corner. While much of that land is viewed as highly important to the endangered Florida panther, and a key link to how "wild" Florida looked before development, the agency opted to open much of that area to off-road vehicle use.
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.
So controversial was the decision that in March a coalition of groups -- including PEER -- announced its intention to sue the Park Service over its plans. 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.
In late May, according to PEER, the National Parks Conservation Association filed its own notice of intent to sue the Interior Department and Park Service over the plan. That notice (attached) points out that it was known that there already were declines in white-tailed deer, turkeys, and wild hogs -- prey for Florida panthers -- when the management plan was being adopted. Those declines, the notice adds, "very likely" were either caused by, or exacerbated, by off-road vehicle use and associated hunting in the preserve.
At the same time, the filing points out, a biological opinion filed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes the value of this prey base to the panthers and yet "never evaluates the impact of further prey base decline within the Addition on the survival and recovery of the Florida panther."
Last week PEER said it is continuing to "investigate how the National Park Service lost 40,000 acres of lands the NPS itself found eligible as wilderness in 2009, so to open up much of the 147,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve Addition to ORVs."
"PEER continues to evaluate documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. As it turns out, the NPS superintendent Pedro Ramos and David Vela (Regional Director) may have committed an even more serious violation than sleight-of-hand. They may have violated the Endangered Species Act," a PEER statement claims.
The essential facts are: in May 2009, the NPS Draft General Management Plan (GMP) for the Addition announced that that over 111,000 acres of the Addition were “eligible” as wilderness; the Draft GMP proposed that 85,000 acres of that should be proposed as wilderness; in November 2010, the Final GMP announced that only 71,000 acres were “eligible” as wilderness, and of that 47,000 acres would be proposed; many of the areas no longer eligible were crossed with proposed new primary ORV trails, turning the large blocks of roadless tracts into fragmented pieces, and on January 4, 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency wrote to Mr. Ramos that the Final GMP had failed to consider and analyze the potential effects of the proposed new (ORV) trail system.
"The lands at stake are the largest tract of undeveloped wild lands in South Florida, not yet protected. It is sad that the NPS must be sued to live up to stewardship responsibilities," reads a statement from PEER.
PEER officials have been exploring this issue over eligible wilderness land for some months. The group previously had assembled several documents that address how Big Cypress officials over the years have evaluated acreage in the preserve for official wilderness designation, legislation specific to the Addition lands, and documentation of how Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos "reanalyzed" wilderness eligible lands to significantly reduce the number of acres potentially suitable for wilderness designation.
Among those documents is one that mentions a meeting Superintendent Ramos and the Park Service's Southeast regional director, David Vela, had with Director Jarvis early last year. According to PEER's account, the superintendent and Mr. Vela wanted Mr. Jarvis' approval to waive a section of the Park Service's Management Policies pertaining to wilderness-quality landscapes so they could allow ORV use in the Addition lands.
The specific section of the 2006 Management Policies states that, "[T]he National Park Service will take no action that would diminish the wilderness eligibility of an area possessing wilderness characteristics until the legislative process of wilderness designation has been completed. Until that time management decisions will be made in expectation of eventual wilderness designation.”
When Mr. Jarvis denied that waiver request, PEER maintains that "Ramos and Vela implemented a new strategy. If lands deemed eligible for wilderness stand in the way of their pending ORV decision, they would simply reanalyze the lands. They conducted a quick re-analysis. Vela submitted the re-analysis to the Director on April 20, 2010. Deputy Director Dan Wenk (now Yellowstone's superintendent) approved it on May 12, 2010."