Faced with a wondrous opportunity to truly preserve a large swath of Florida still bearing wilderness characteristics, one that can play a critical role in the recovery of North America's most endangered mammal, the National Park Service instead looked the other way.
In doing so, the agency seems to have both ignored its mandate from the National Park Service Organic Act to, above all else, conserve "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein" for future generations, and tossed dirt on Interior Department promises to "ensure and maintain the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities used in Departmental decision making."
At stake was the future of 147,000 acres in the northeastern corner of the preserve, a section of land known as the "Addition" for its connection to the preserve in 1996 as the result of 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 earlier this month.
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."
Under the selected plan, more than one-third of the Addition could be accessed by motorized vehicle, either ponderous swamp buggies used by hunters and wildlife tours or motor boats. To provide for that access, preserve officials have agreed to allow up to 130 miles of primary ORV trails -- centered in a half-mile wide corridor -- in the area, along with as many as 650 ORV permits annually. What's uncertain, though, is how many miles of secondary trails might be creased through the landscape, how big of a footprint would be occupied by two "primitive" campgrounds, and whether the trails will turn proposed wilderness into "islands."
Critics such as U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida, can't understand why the Park Service authorized so many miles of ORV trails in light of the ORV access elsewhere in Big Cypress.
"Most of the 582,000 acres of the preserve are ... open to motorized recreation for up to 2,000 permitted ORV owners who can enjoy motor vehicles as a way of experiencing the Big Cypress National Preserve," the congressman wrote in a letter to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
In light of the existing off-road-vehicle opportunities in the preserve, and when just 7 percent of Big Cypress visitors are interested in off-road-vehicle travel, as noted in a 2007 survey conducted for the Park Service by the University of Idaho's Park Studies Unit, can this increased ORV network be justified by the Park Service?
But this is not an issue solely of ORV access versus wilderness preservation. At risk to this management plan is a biologically rich and diverse landscape of plants, animals, fish, and birds that already is surrounded by pressing, and stressing, development. The West Indian manatee, an endangered species, relies on waterways in the Addition, while the red-cockaded woodpecker, also endangered, utilizes its forests. And then there's the Florida panther, a creature that has struggled to survive the urbanization of Florida.
At one point there were so few panthers in the region that the Park Service brought in cougars from Texas to bolster the gene pool. While there currently are thought to be 100-120 Florida panthers in the wild, perhaps a third of those residing in Big Cypress, continued population growth requires suitable habitat. Allowing the Addition to be sliced up with ORV trails does not aid this endeavor.
While Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos has said the preserve has all the panthers it can possibly contain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in critiquing the Park Service's preferred plan for the Addition, said it would create "long-term, moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the Florida panther..."
In other words, while Big Cypress might have all the panthers it can hold, this plan is not in the best interests for those that reside there. Is this how endangered species should be treated?
Already Big Cypress's panthers are showing signs of being crowded. According to the Florida Panther Net, which tracks Florida panthers, in 2010 at least three panthers died in the preserve, all the result of "intraspecific aggression," which arises when males fight over territory. One of those deaths occurred in the Addition tract.
Along with placing more pressure on panther territories, the half-mile-wide ORV routes and hunting pose a risk to populations of white-tailed deer, a key part of the panthers' prey base, something else the EPA voiced concern over. Indeed, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 3rd revision of its Florida Panther Recovery Plan, published in November 2008, the agency noted the importance of an abundant deer population to panther recovery, and how hunting pressure in the past had impacted that abundance.
The size, distribution, and abundance of available prey species are critical factors to the persistence of panthers in south Florida and often determine the extent of panther use of an area. A resident adult male puma generally consumes one deer-sized prey every 8 - 11 days; this frequency is 14 - 17 days for a resident female; and 3.3 days for a female with three 13-month-old kittens. Historically, hunting in the Big Cypress physiographic region has been a major traditional activity with many hunt camps throughout the region. With establishment of national and state parks, the numbers of hunt camps were decreased and additional hunting regulations that reduced hunting pressure on deer were implemented. Although deer densities are difficult to determine, the deer population appears to have steadily increased.
Despite data on the importance of wild-tailed deer to Florida panther survival, despite the absence of clear data on the current deer population, and despite information on how hunting can reduce that population, Big Cypress officials want to allow hunting to return to the Addition.
Add to the habitat issues concerns over what ORV use could do to the preserve's water quality. In 2001 the U.S. Geological Survey had this to say about ORV use in Big Cypress:
ORV use in Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY) has impacted wildlife populations and habitats through modifications to water flow patterns (direction and velocity) and water quality, soil displacement and compaction, direct vegetation damage, disturbance to foraging individuals, and, ultimately, overall suitability of habitats for wildlife.
In its comments to the Park Service, the EPA, in generalizing ORV impacts to public lands, said:
EPA is concerned about the impacts of motorized traffic that is growing rapidly on the public lands. Large segments of the hunting and fishing community, for example, believe that off-road vehicles are taking a toll on the land and its wildlife and are detracting from the experience of non-motorized visitors. Evidence is mounting that ORVs pose a serious threat to wildlife, water, soil, plants, and the rest of the natural world.
Of primary concern to EPA is that ORV's use is fragmenting the landscape into a disorganized and destructive web of trails and roads. They point to severe impacts to the soil, the spread of invasive plant seeds, and the disruption to sensitive and endangered wildlife as cause for regulatory intervention. Insufficient enforcement of existing regulations has resulted in thousands of miles of unauthorized routes across the landscape.
The dramatic increase in ORV use on public lands can be responsible for a host of adverse impacts on wildlife, vegetation, soils, water quality, and nonmotorized recreationists. The contamination of air, water, and soil by ORV pollution is among the most significant of these impacts.
Oddly silent has been Park Service Director Jarvis, who, immediately after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, cited stewardship as one of four areas he wanted to stress during his tenure:
Stewardship of our natural and cultural resources has always been a core value of mine. Our mission is to manage these treasured landscapes unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. This mission is being challenged, particularly by global warming. But at the same time, these challenges are pushing us to think and act at the ecosystem scale, creating unprecedented partnerships with other land managers. We must apply the very best science and scholarly research. To do so, I will create the position of Science Advisor to the Director. As stewards of our national parks, especially considering the challenges of climate change, we must be visible leaders using the sustainability of our facilities and operations, to demonstrate the best in energy and water conservation.
While national preserves are indeed open to different uses than national parks, the Park Service nevertheless is bound to the over-arching mandate of its Organic Act. There is no shortage of off-road lands to enjoy in the country, but there is a shortage of officially designated wilderness and, in the case of the panther, precious few acres of habitat to help this cat survive.
When you consider the fate of the Florida panther, the sprawling development elsewhere in Florida and the impacts that is having on the Everglades, and the overall lack of sub-tropical wilderness, this plan doesn't make sense and should be overturned by Mr. Jarvis.