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Big Cypress National Preserve: The Latest Battleground Over ORVs in the Parks


ORVs traveling through the Bear Island Unit of Big Cypress National Preserve can leave deep, terrain-changing ruts. Matthew Schwartz photos.

When the rainy season comes to south Florida, the region becomes saturated with water. If it's not falling from the sky, water from swelling creeks, rivers and swamps overruns the landscape. This water is the lifeblood to Everglades National Park, and it's a key natural resource of Big Cypress National Preserve, a 728,000-acre swath of swamplands.

During the rainy season, as much as 90 percent of Big Cypress is awash; sopping, soaked, and filled to the brim, and then some. It's this incredible deluge that gives the park much of its life. That's evident by the massive stands of bald cypress, trees whose tangle of roots have adapted to being underwater much of the time.

Then, too, there's the freshwater marl prairie, a prairie built up in part by calcium carbonate particles that are home to various algae. A landscape of muck and sawgrass during the rainy season, the marl prairie is one of nature's incredible filters, ever so slowly draining the rainfall.

Within this setting you can find Great White Heron; the anhinga, a bird never really seen beyond Florida and whose cousins are more commonly spotted in South America and Africa; the brightly feathered and hard to spot purple galinule, and; the Florida panther, one of the most endangered animals in the United States.

The panther is only the most obvious endangered species in Big Cypress, the poster child, if you will. Other threatened and endangered species in Big Cypress include the red-cockaded woodpecker, the American wood stork, bald eagle, Everglades snail kite, Cape Sable seaside sparrow, West Indian manatee, American alligator, and eastern indigo snake.

Within this biologically rich ecosystem runs another creature, one that prowls on four knobby tires that inevitably claw and tear at the terrain, rutting it and redirecting the pulse of water that flows across Big Cypress. For many Floridians who live around Big Cypress, driving their off-road vehicles into the preserve -- which was designated in 1974 -- has been a longstanding tradition. Many use these over-grown rigs to reach hunting camps, others for an afternoon outing.

ORV use of the land now found within Big Cypress dates to the 1920s. Down through the decades, unregulated ORV use has burgeoned, leading to the creation of more than 23,000 miles of dispersed trails. In 2000, then-Superintendent John Donahue, acting on biological information and suitability studies indicating that ORVs were damaging ecosystems and disturbing the Florida panther, implemented an ORV plan that aimed to cut those 23,300 miles of dispersed trail down to just 400 miles of designated trails.

In Big Cypress's so-called Bear Island Unit, that plan called for a reduction of 55 miles of primary trails to just about 30 miles of primary trails and an unspecified amount of secondary routes.

Earlier this year, though, preserve Superintendent Karen Gustin determined that those 20 miles of closed trails could be reopened. That decision spawned a threat from environmental and conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife, that they would go to court to overturn Ms. Gustin's decision.

The filing of the lawsuit is said to be imminent.

In announcing their legal intentions, the groups alleged that the National Park Service, by reopening those 20 miles of ORV trails in the Bear Island Unit, had violated not only the Endangered Species Act but also the Clean Water Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and even the preserve's own ORV Management Plan and Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

More specifically, they contend that ORV use in Big Cypress "has impacted wildlife populations and habitats through modifications to water flow patterns and water quality, soil displacement and compaction, direct vegetation damage, disturbance to foraging individuals, and ultimately, overall suitability of habitats for wildlife."

Superintendent Gustin maintains she was operating well within her authority to reopen the ORV trails. By developing travel plans for each of the preserve's various units, Big Cypress managers will establish a well-defined trail network, one that will be easier to regulate, the superintendent said.

“Prior to this plan being written, there was dispersed use all over the place. Negative resource impacts. I think everybody agrees with that," said Superintendent Gustin. "And the plan was meant to No. 1, protect resources, and No. 2, to get rid of dispersed use. That’s a huge goal for us. To get rid of dispersed use completely, we have to have a trail system in place so that we can enforce the regulations to keep those people on the trails."

As to concerns that allowing 20 more miles of ORV trails in the Bear Island Unit will be detrimental to the survival of the Florida panther, Superintendent Gustin said the latest biological information on the panther says it can co-exist with ORVs at the proposed levels.

“Back in the mid-90s to the late 90s when this plan was being written, when that lawsuit was going on, there was a general consensus, a feeling among the Park Service and the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service that Bear Island was the only habitat really suitable for the Florida panther. It’s high and dry. It’s the highest and driest area of Big Cypress," she said.

"In the mid-90s, eight Texas cougars were brought in to breed with the Florida panthers that were in existence at that time. I think the population was down to about 30. Those panthers bred, they were very successful, and we now have approximately 80-100 panthers in south Florida, and we say approximately 30 of those panthers use Big Cypress on a regular basis," she continued.

"We have found subsequent to that genetic reintroduction program that all areas of Big Cypress are suitable for panthers, and in fact panthers are using all of Big Cypress. So, yes, Bear Island is important habitat for the panther, but it’s not the only habitat that’s being used by panthers. All of Big Cypress is being used."

Oddly, while the Fish and Wildlife Service did support Superintendent Gustin's decision on the Bear Island trails, it did so based on what the Park Service planned to do in the future.

In conclusion, the Service believes that the commitments outlined in your February 15, 2007, letter are sufficient to demonstrate the NPS' intention to comply with the terms and conditions of the July 14, 2000, Biological Opinion with respect to the Bear Island management unit, Paul Souza, the field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida Ecological Services Office, wrote in mid-February.

Among the Park Service's proposed commitments were plans to conduct a carrying capacity study of panthers in the Bear Island Unit and a study evaluating the impacts of ORVs on panther movements. Why those studies weren't performed before Superintendent Gustin decided to open up more ORV trails in the Bear Island Unit, and why Mr. Souza didn't insist on those studies before supporting her decision, seems incredible to Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society.

"In our meeting, Paul Souza talked about anecdotal evidence, none of which is memorialized in his memo. The fact is that FWS has not completed any studies in order to open areas to off-road vehicles. They violated the law as did the Park Service," said Ms. Brengel.

"The superintendent appeared to have every intention to open up more Florida panther habitat to damaging swamp buggy use. If she really intended to take a careful look at wildlife issues and involve the public, she would have waited for the studies to be completed and held a meeting that included the public rather than stacking the deck by inviting almost only off-road vehicle enthusiasts," she added.

"This decision is horrible and sad for all national parks."

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While working at the Everglades back in '86 I visited all the surrounding parks including the Big C. It was a very sad place -- kinda like the Lorax story with trees splintered up, tire tracks everywhere... you could tell recreational vehicles of all kinds were king there. And amazingly -- at the time -- it was thought that the 30 or so remaining panthers were all holed up in there somewhere, with occasional visits to the wetter Everglades NP. We all know how National Preserves are a farce when it comes to "preservation"... and I wonder how long before some idiot says "Hey let's shoot panthers, we've got more than a hundred of 'em now..." I'm sure Marjory Stoneman Douglas is stirring in her grave.

So much for preserving the integrity of the pride. By introduction of an exotic species to artificially raise the population you have committed the worst type of biological atrocity. You have effectively brought the Florida line to extinction by introducing genetic mutation, thereby forever altering the bloodline. This is a textbook example of the "bad science" that demonstrates the ignorance, arrogance and short-sighted nature of modern man, and is irreversible. Congrats to the wildlife biologists that concocted and engineered this brilliant scheme, and the NPS for ushering another species to the ranks of the extinct. You should be SO proud of yourselves!

Hum, about 30 thought to be living in a specific region prior to the breeding program and about 30 thought to still be in the area 10 or so years after. If they had been tagged and tracked, I'll bet you the 30 that chose to remain in their original habitat are comprised of original pride members and their 1st generation offspring, with the 2F and exotics to be found elsewhere throughout the preserve and local region. The learned behavior hasn't been bred out yet, but not to worry, the remainder of the population will most certainly, in another couple of generations, be utilizing the entire of south Florida just as effectively as the estimated 70% of the "other" population is currently. Then as Merryland intimated, the hunt will be on. Just wait until the first dog, or kid, comes up missing.

What is Superintendant Gustin thinking? Opening more trails for ORV's will have a negative impact on the environment and wildlife. This is just another example of people selfishly taking more land away from animals that were there first and we need to speak up for them. I'm just wondering if Gustin has some ulterior motive?

It is the Big Cypress NATIONAL Preserve! Not the "Handfull Of People Who Want To Lock It Up And Bar Everyone Preserve"! I am a Moderate Thinker! I try to always see BOTH sides of an argument. I believe a balance can always be struck. While I'm not for destroying the land, I am for USING the land!
If everyone STAYS ON THE TRAILS, I don't see a problem. The problem comes in, when people think they can just take their ORV'S ANYWHERE they want, WHENEVER they want! That's when you give fuel to the minority of people, who want to lock up OUR Public Lands forever!
And they should not be able to do that! Again, it's the Big Cypress NATIONAL Preserve! It belongs to ALL of us!

i have lived in south florida all my life, i'm also one of the few people born in the state i have lived and breathed both sides. people the dig holes with there tire and run into trees because they can is what hurt the area and not poeple that follow the tread lightly. i have a large 4x4 my self and love to go out for a drive but i do everything in my power not to dig holes or leave trash behide like other. the only way this is going to work is if we have both side sit down and talk about and not call each other names.

thank you

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