Dispersed Off-Road Vehicle Use Ends at Big Cypress National Preserve

Dispersed use within Big Cypress National Preserve resulted in wide swaths of damage from ORV tracks. (left). Swamp buggies (right) are a traditional form of backcountry access into remote areas of the preserve. NPS photo (left), Ryan Stubblebine photo (right).

One of the enduring topics of debate in NPS circles in recent years has been Off-road vehicle (ORV) use in Big Cypress National Preserve. The park reached an important
milestone with the announcement that "dispersed" ORV use in the area would end on July 22, 2011.

The change has been a long time coming; it's the culmination of a process than began over ten years ago with the development on an off-road vehicle plan for the original portion of the preserve, which covers approximately 580,000 acres. The planning process relied heavily upon input from a citizen-based ORV advisory committee, established in 2007.

What does this change mean for ORV users and the park?

According to a park spokesperson, "As of July 22, Off-road vehicles will may only use designated trail routes within any of the preserve units open to ORV access."

"This historic measure comes after the preserve selected and marked ORV trails within the Corn Dance Unit. Until May of this year, the Corn Dance unit was the last unit within the original preserve where dispersed ORV use was authorized. ORV use has long been a traditional form of accessing remote areas of the swamp. Eliminating dispersed use and implementing designated trails is an important step that will protect resources while allowing sustainable traditional access to the area as required by law."

Readers who aren't familiar with the Preserve or the history of ORV use in the area may be a wondering about the apparent emphasis of that activity in an NPS area. The park website offers a bit of clarification:

"Nearly impossible to reach by foot, generations explored remote areas of the preserve by homemade airboats or swamp buggies. Today, people enjoy this traditional activity along an extensive trail system by obtaining permits for a variety of allowed vehicles."

"Off-road vehicle (ORV) operation within the authorized speed limit on designated trails for hunting, fishing, frogging, camping, wildlife observation, transportation to private property, and other traditional nature based activities is consistent with the Big Cypress National Preserve enabling legislation and the Addition Act, and are authorized in the Preserve."

All ORV access into the preserve is by permit only. The free operator's permits are valid for a calendar year. Each ORV requires an annual vehicle permit, and must pass an inspection every three years. Details about ORV access, rules and regulations in the park are available at this link.

ORV management at Big Cypress has been a challenging process for all parties, and despite this week's announcement, there's more work to be done. As reported in the Traveler earlier this year, one of the latest points of contention has been the ORV plan for parts of the preserve known as the Addition lands. Those areas are not covered by the newly implemented designated trail system in the original portions of the park.

Comments

According to the National Park Service, the Big Cypress National Preserve receives approximately 800,000 visitors per year - the vast majority are not among the 2000 ORV owners NPS allows into the preserve on an annual permit. They park their passenger vehicles and explore on foot. When folks realize that the only real difficulty encountered hiking in the Big Cypress is wet feet, the area becomes a magical and wonderful journey through one of the most biodiverse landscapes in our nation (according to many scientists - it is likely the most biodiverse land in the continental U.S.) The vast majority of the preserve - and for many of us, all of it - would hardly be characterized as "nearly impossible to reach by foot". The trips I have been leading for years into some of the wilder sections of the preserve have included young children as well as seniors as old as 90 - lengths walked are of course changed depending on the condition of the participants.
Like any truly natural area, the Big Cypress of course has its dangers. Most are the same as any wilderness type area (and apply to hikers as well as those who journey by ORV). These are dealt with by bringing plenty of food and water, sturdy shoes (which let water in and out - waterproof is not a great idea in the Big Cypress - your footwear will become an aquarium), a good hat for the sun and other proper clothing. Knowing when to get into the shade in the hot and humid conditions - stop walking and have a drink - is also commonsense, but essential. It's also a good idea to have a map and compass (and the knowledge of how to use both) - in addition to handheld GPS. There are few landmarks in the flat (yet endlessly varied) landscape and one can get lost. Venemous snakes (diamondback rattlers, pygmy rattlers, cottonmouths, and corals), plus poisonous plants (e.g. poison ivy and oak) are also present. Reading up before you go in - or going in with an experienced guide - will minimize those dangers as well.
As Jim's article said, the ORV Management Plan recently finalized is the culmination of many years work by an almost countless number of dedicated (and passionate) stakeholders as well as NPS staff. The end result is a preserve which still allows the use of recreational motor-vehicles on hundreds of miles of ORV trails (some of which still cut across highly sensitive areas), but also allows the general public to enjoy and experience this remarkable piece of public land on foot. And one of the most incredible ecosystems in our national park system, surrounded by seemingly endless and ever-growing human encroachment, will be allowed to recover and remain ecologically intact.
Matt Schwartz
Executive Director
South Florida Wildlands Association