Big Cypress National Preserve Going Too Far With ORV Access, Panther Impacts

Balancing its many mandates brings much criticism to the National Park Service. Working to preserve landscapes and resources, provide for the public’s enjoyment, and addressing various constituencies at times seemingly is a no-win situation.

With so many different interests, the Park Service almost constantly is being pulled in opposing directions when it comes to developing management approaches.

The ongoing debates over motorized access in Yellowstone National Park (snowmobiles) and Cape Hatteras National Seashore (off-road vehicles) are just two highly visible examples. A third is in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, where the superintendent’s preferred approach to managing the “Addition” lands is drawing criticisms of being deeply flawed for its support of off-road vehicles and impacts on Florida panthers.

Soon after the plan came out in November the National Parks Conservation Association said it offers too little protection for the highly endangered Florida panther. Now the South Florida Wildlands Association is criticizing its ORV allowances as well as its potential impacts on panthers, hikers, and neighboring tribal lands.

In its narrative the plan, which possibly could take affect next week, says the preferred alternative is likely to adversely affect the preserve’s panther population. However, it concludes that those impacts won’t rise to a level of impairment because of mitigation efforts the Park Service can take in managing the Addition lands.

The landscape in question is a 147,000-acre swath of land located in the preserve’s northeastern quadrant that came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. At the time the Addition was added to Big Cypress, it was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed.

The preferred alternative endorsed by Superintendent Pedro Ramos calls for up to 130 miles of ORV trails and as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Both the miles of ORV trails and the maximum number of permits would be delivered in phases under the plan.

While a draft version of the document recommended 85,862 acres of officially designated wilderness, the final plan calls for 47,067 acres of designated wilderness.

In a statement released late last week, the wildlands association said the ORV routes with their two parking areas and a campground intended to accommodate ORVers was too much in a landscape that should be preserved in as pristine a manner as possible.

“The Addition lands are a national treasure. Added to the 582,000 acres of the original preserve by The Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988, the Senate report accompanying this legislation referred to the Addition as ‘one of the few remaining large parcels of pristine land left in Florida’ and noted ‘its environmental importance and beauty is unquestioned,’” the association statement said. “On the House side, the Addition was referred to as an area of ‘unique wild beauty,’ and as ‘habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, including the Florida panther, the bald eagle, native orchids and many other species…'”

The non-profit group said the area should be preserved to offer visitors insights into how south Florida appeared “long before our region became home to 6 million residents and a vacation destination for many millions more.”

“Bird and animal watchers, hikers, nature photographers, native plant enthusiasts and even amateur astronomers all enjoy the tranquil beauty of a piece of land that is also habitat for 31 listed animals (endangered, threatened, or species of special concern) as well as hundreds of native plants (96 of which are listed by the State of Florida as threatened or endangered),” the association said.

The Park Service, by endorsing increased ORV access to the preserve, seemingly was abdicating its responsibility as “stewards of one of America’s most unique places,” according to the association.

“Every single piece of legislation, regulation and guidance dealing with the management of National Park Service units, from the Organic Act of 1916 to the 2006 NPS Management Policies, stresses the need to put natural resource protection before recreation. As summed up by former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in 2006:

‘When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant,’ Kempthorne said. ‘That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our Nation’s commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment.’”

According to the association, tribes that border the Addition lands also are opposed to increased ORV use. Both the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes are concerned about “the likelihood of increased incursions and game poaching on tribal lands; disturbance to native American archaeological sites as well as ceremonial sites currently in use in the Addition; spread of invasive plant species on tribal lands; negative impacts to major game species with potentially severe consequences for the panther; and disruption of wildlife migrations between tribal lands and the Addition,” the group said.

Also likely to be impacted by the plan is the Florida Trail Association, which oversees a 1,000-mile footpath between Big Cypress and Gulf Islands National Seashore, the wildlands association said, as new off-road vehicle routes could impact that trail.

“Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged that NPS change course and select a plan (Alternative F) which maximizes federal wilderness in the Addition and allows no use of recreational motor vehicles,” the wildlands alliance said. “The EPA’s question to the NPS and FWS on how the removal of prey for the Florida panther will impact the species’ survival continues to go unanswered.”

Whether the superintendent’s preferred alternative is implemented remains to be seen, and the wildlands association is urging those who oppose it to voice their opposition to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.


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