National Park Service officials manipulated agency regulations to reduce the number of acres eligible for wilderness designation by 40,000 at Big Cypress National Preserve so more of the preserve could be open to off-road vehicles, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“In Big Cypress, Park Service officials crudely gamed the process to reach a pre-determined result,” charged PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who characterized the Park Service explanation as tantamount to asking “who are you going to believe – us or your lying eyes?”
The lands at issue, he said in a press release, are "clearly wild and largely inaccessible."
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.
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, if allowed to stand, 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.
PEER officials have been sifting through Park Service documents to try to determine how the reduction in potential wilderness acreage was justified, and believe they've caught Big Cypress officials in an administrative sleight-of-hand.
In May 2009, the NPS put a Draft General Management Plan for the Addition out for public comment with the announcement that over 111,000 acres of lands added to the Preserve in 1988 were “eligible” as wilderness. Less than a year later, NPS officials decided that 40,000 of those wilderness acres should instead be open to motorized recreation, which is prohibited by law in designated wilderness.
In order to accomplish this, NPS superintendent Pedro Ramos and Regional Director David Vela first asked (NPS) Director (Jon) Jarvis to waive national Management Policies requiring that wilderness eligible lands be managed so as not to forfeit future designation as wilderness. When Jarvis refused to grant the waiver, Ramos and Vela did a very quick reassessment of the wilderness character of the target lands which:
* Was done without public notice or participation. Vela later claimed the quickie 2010 reassessment was actually just a continuation of the previous 2006 assessment which found the lands to have wilderness character;
* Expanded 25-fold the non-wilderness corridors surrounding every trail, canal or road. Increasing the buffer from .01 miles to .25 miles on both sides of every trail will accommodate large vehicles going off-trail and gouging large ruts through the swampy Big Cypress Preserve; and
* Applied never before used criteria in violation of Wilderness Act precepts and agency policy. The new 13-page reassessment supposedly was done not from the vantage of a “common visitor” but from the eyes of a “manager” although previous assessments were conducted by NPS managers.
Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos has in the past responded to criticisms over the amount of wilderness the preserve supports for the Addition lands by pointing out that Big Cypress was created out of compromise, "where everybody has a place, where conservation is important. But having access is also important."
"If we forget that, and if we are not true to the intention of Congress and the mandate that they gave us to the act, we would not only be breaking promises made that resulted in the creation of the place, but we would be violating law, the law that created the preserve, which ultimately is what it all boils down to," Mr. Ramos has said.
The superintendent also has maintained that the process through which the preserve arrived at its management plan for the 147,000 acres was very open.
While PEER back in December 2010 had filed a complaint under the "Data Quality Act," which requires that Park Service decision documents be "accurate, reliable and consistent," on June 9 it was rejected by David Vela, the agency's Southeast Region director. This past Wednesday the watchdog group made an appeal of that decision to Director Jarvis.
“Beyond the future of the Big Cypress National Preserve, this is about whether there is any integrity in Park Service decision-making,” Mr. Ruch said. “This appeal is the last chance Director Jarvis has to do the right thing before we see him in court.”