National Park Service officials failed the American public by allowing off-road vehicle use in the "Addition lands" area of Big Cypress National Preserve, the National Parks Conservation Association charged today while filing a lawsuit against the agency.
"The American people expect our national parks to be highly protected," John Adornato, the group's Sun Coast regional director, said during a conference call with reporters to announce the filing. "That our national parks are a place of refuge, and pristine. Unfortunately, the Park Service did not deliver on that expectation with this plan."
The non-profit advocacy group's lawsuit, which also names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Interior Department, asks the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Meyers to overturn the general management plan Big Cypress officials crafted a year ago and order the agency to start over.
In discussing the lawsuit, NPCA officials and their attorney said the Park Service had, in essence, done a shabby job in putting together the GMP for the 147,000 acres that came to the Park Service in 1996 as part of a land exchange with the state of Florida.
"We think we have a very strong case of showing that the Park Service has violated numerous laws in a misguided effort to open up the Addition lands to off-road vehicle use," said Robert Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold & Porter that filed the lawsuit. "Normally, the Park Service follows its legal mandates and the scientific and other studies that it has in front of it to guide it to a decision. What we believe happened in this case is that instead the Park Service wanted to open up the Addition to off-road vehicle use, and therefore bent or ignored the legal mandates or the science in order to permit it to reach that decision.”
Among the laws NPCA claims the Park Service "bent or ignored" are the Endangered Species Act in connection with the Florida panther, the West Indian manatee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the ghost orchid; the preserve's enabling legislation, which directed the Park Service "to administer it 'in a manner which will assure the natural and ecological integrity of this place in perpetuity,'" said Mr. Rosenbaum; and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the agency to compile "all the critical information in front of them about the impacts of the action upon the environment," something the Big Cypress officials failed to do, the attorney said.
"In order to sidestep these mandates, the Park Service ignored some of the mandates, misstated in its general management plan what other of the mandates require, and manipulated some of the scientific and factual evaluations and made the decision without critical studies of what the impacts would be," said Mr. Rosenbaum.
By adopting its preferred alternative, which had been criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, members of Congress, and conservation groups, the Park Service chose a plan that critics say maximizes motorized access, provides the least amount of wilderness, and develops limited hiking only trails.
Under the approved GMP, up to 130 miles of ORV trails, down just 10 miles from the number recommended in the draft management plan released back in 2009, could be created in the Addition. Additionally, as many as 650 ORV permits could be allowed annually in the area. And while the draft document recommended 85,862 acres of officially designated wilderness, the final plan called for 47,067 acres of designated wilderness, a fact that bewildered critics.
“The Park Service dropped 40,000 acres from the area that it previously had considered eligible for protection as wilderness. If it’s eligible for wilderness, even if Congress ultimately has to make the decision, until Congress makes that decision, if it’s eligible for wilderness, it can’t be used for off-road vehicles or similar highly impacting uses," Mr. Rosenbaum said. "Here, in order to open up more land for off-road vehicle use, the Park Service adopted new and incorrect and unprecedented interpretations of what type of area qualifies as wilderness."
If the Park Service's approved GMP stands, it will carry ramifications not only across the Addition's 147,000 acres, but also on south to Everglades National Park, according to NPCA.
"Unfortunately, the Park Service is relying on Everglades restoration to give them benefits that they would otherwise have had to mitigate for. We all know Everglades restoration is a long-term process. It’s something that the Park Service does not have complete control over," said Mr. Adornato. “The preserve has as a purpose to ensure that there is that natural flow of water, that filtration and that flow that delivers clean water to Everglades National Park, particularly the 10,000 Islands area, a place that is so critical for the fishing community.”
While some, including Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos, have pointed out that Big Cypress is a "preserve" and not a "national park" and so management allowances are different, Mr. Rosenbaum said that doesn't alter the Park Service's bottom-line responsibilities in the preserve under the unit's own enabling legislation as well as the National Park Service Organic Act, the Redwood Amendment of 1978, and the agency's 2006 Management Policies.
"The (enabling legislation) is very clear, the history of the statute in Congress is very clear," he said. "This is part of the National Park System, to be managed as such, and the first priority in management is to protect the natural resources of this park. So, I’ve heard it said that a preserve is different than a park. It’s just not true as a matter of law.”
While the Big Cypress GMP was approved by the Park Service's Southeast Regional Director, David Vela, and appeals of that decision went all the way up to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, NPCA officials focused their disappointment on the agency as a whole.
"This is a Park Service decision. This was made by a lot of people," said Kristen Brengel, the group's director for legislative and government affairs. "But, I will say that we are extremely disappointed that the Park Service made this decision. We believe this is an absolute failure of their responsibility to protect this area. ... Regardless of what level the final decision was made here at the Park Service, it is absolutely a huge disappointment to the American public, and in terms of what it says about the Park Service largely, that’s still to be determined, but this was a huge failure, a huge failure.”
The NPCA's lawsuit is expected to be joined in the coming week by a similar one being brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.