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Big Cypress National Preserve: Is More ORV Access In Bear Island Unit Wise?


ORV tracks in the Bear Island Unit of Big Cypress National Preserve beg the question: Should greater ORV access be granted in the unit? Photo by Matthew Schwartz.

By Matthew Schwartz

As Kevin Loller’s recent article on Big Cypress indicates, the heart of the problem is the extent to which off-road vehicles (ORVs) will be allowed access to the preserve. The article focused on the recent decision by Superintendent Karen Gustin to reopen closed trails in the popular Bear Island unit and the probable lawsuit that will be filed by a coalition of environmental groups in response. If the public is to make sense of this conflict, all key facts need to be available.

The management plan which originally closed the Bear Island trails was a settlement to a lawsuit over the destruction of preserve resources by ORVs. That plan was challenged in court and upheld by two federal judges. It has the force of law. The plan allows for approximately 30 miles of ORV trails in Bear Island out of a total of 400 miles for the entire original preserve. The final plan found 25 miles of suitable trail in Bear Island .

The recent decision reopened 15 miles of primary trail and 9 miles of secondary trail—essentially doubling the trail length and areas of use. While the management plan clearly states that secondary trails will have a specific destination such as a campsite or property, the secondary trails laid out in Superintendent Gustin’s decision have no such destination and appear to be used simply to extend the allowable trail distances.

It should also be noted that there now remains no area for hikers or walk-in hunters in Bear Island. From a tranquil area one could explore on foot to a jumble of ever widening mud roads, near pristine sections of Bear Island that have been completely transformed. There are currently less than 2,000 ORV permit holders in Big Cypress. For the more than 500,000 annual visitors who do not utilize ORVs, a visit to a national preserve should not mean having to hike in a vehicle-scarred landscape amidst the noises and smells of “traffic.”

The plan itself gave two reasons for the original closures. The first was to provide undisturbed habitat for the critically endangered Florida panther. A three-year study showed that panthers decreased their use of Bear Island from between 30 to 40 percent during times of heightened ORV activity. The second was the terrain itself. Eastern Bear Island is almost entirely prairie and inundated for most of the year. According to the ORV management plan, prairies are the least suitable areas for sustained ORV usage. Damage cited includes the removal of vegetation; oxidation and compaction of soil; hydrological changes; and the likely spread of invasive plant species. Dispersed use is also known to occur due to the total lack of obstacles in prairies and the need for vehicles to move to less disturbed ground in order to gain traction. All prairies in the preserve were closed to ORVs by the plan in 2000.

Of all the places I have hiked, Big Cypress is by far the easiest and most accommodating. With no hills to climb, no rocks to step over, and pleasant daytime breezes to keep mosquitoes away it is easily accessible to all. The convenience of dry feet for a relatively few is hardly worth damage to one of our nation’s premier biological reserves — home to countless species including 30 animals and 72 plants classified as in need of protection. At a time when the U.S. Congress has just allocated over $300 million of taxpayer money to remove roads and hydrological impediments in the nearby Picayune Strand, the National Park Service should not be moving in the opposite direction.

The Off-Road Vehicle Plan of 2000 represents five years of combined work by administrators, lawyers, scientists, planners, and concerned citizens, many of whom took time from their lives to provide input at numerous public forums. The final plan is sound. It is designed to allow off-road vehicle use to take place in a unit of the National Park Service where the maintenance of its “natural and ecological integrity in perpetuity” is still the primary mission. In the reopening of the Bear Island trails, Superintendent Gustin is out of line and is violating a previous park service decision. She should fulfill her duties as steward of an irreplaceable piece of public land and change course immediately.

— Matthew Schwartz is political chair of the Broward Group of the Sierra Club. E-mail at [email protected].


I reviewed the map of the Bear Island ORV Unit. It appears to be (approx) a 5 mile by 6 mile area just north of and alongside Interstate 75. Street legal 4x4s are also allowed on these "trails" which tells me these trails may be more like roads. According to the NPS website, the ORV plan intends to eliminate dispersed use and limit ORV use to designated trails only by 2010. Seems reasonable to me.

Schwartz says less than 1% of Big Cypress visitors are ORVers. Of the 500,000 non-ORV visitors to Big Cypress, how many of them hiked or kayaked more than 1 mile from the road? Honestly, I'm afraid to know the answer to that question. If the Sierra Club is suggesting that we manage recreational use based on the percentage of visitors who participate in that activity, then the NPS better start paving some roads.

Any human use (hiking, birdwatching, camping, kayaking) of a park "impairs" it in some way. Science will tell us that every time. It is the duty of the NPS to find ways to prevent and repair some of those impairments in ways other than closing off the area to human use.

I'm not an ORVer. I'm a long distance hiker, mountain biker, and kayaker. I have run into ORVers several times during my travels. The vast majority that I met were people who appreciated the areas they visit 100 times more than the 500,000 tourists jumping out of their cars to take pictures at the overlooks.

Without having been there, I hesitate to voice a strong opinion on whether ORV use is appropriate at Bear Island. But, I have seen many examples of "nonprofit" groups like the Sierra Club wasting time, money, and human energy filing lawsuits over issues that in the large scheme of things aren't huge problems.

Any human use (hiking, birdwatching, camping, kayaking) of a park "impairs" it in some way.

That depends on how you define impairment, and HH has put it in quotes, so perhaps we share the same thinking, but I'd disagree that "any human use" qualifies as impairment. Clearly, all types of human "use" have an impact, but I don't think hiking (footprints) even compare to the ATV tracks in the photo above. Therefore, I'd say footprints and hiking are an impact, but not an impairment because (generally) they don't damage. It would be hard to argue that the ATVs that created the tracks in the above photo haven't damaged the area.

Also, consider whether a human on foot is part of the ecosystem or separate. I'd argue the former. At Crater Lake, I've followed elk paths up forested ridges. The elk really tore up the soil on their path. I mean, it was highly impacted and altered. But is that an impairment? The disturbance my feet cause in comparison to a herd of 30 rutting elk is miniscule. A human--no, hundreds--on an ATV going through the same terrain would have a higher impact than the elk herd and would therefore impair the area. The same can be said for camping. I've seen places where a herd has rested for the night, and it's pretty disturbed. Likewise, tents create a disturbance. Add RVs and oil leaks and pavement, and I think you've got damage (impairment)--not disturbance.

My point is that humans are natural, a part of the environment, and should be allowed to be a part of that environment. Our vehicles and roads and technology are not and have no place in areas we've decided to keep unimpaired.

Sorry if this is rambling; it's Friday. HH, thanks for your thoughts, and I appreciate your comments on the Everglades! :)


I think the editors have picked a particularly provocative photograph in this instance, as they, understandibly, have a tendency to do. (just as we writers are guilty of making the same choices with words)

I agree with you. This impairment thing is a conundrum. And God love you for bringing up those elk trails! They can do some "damage" can't they?

Unlike most animals, we humans use tools. Using tools is "natural" for us. Gortex and metal aren't natural by your definition. Should we hike barefoot and naked and use campfires instead of stoves? Any way you slice this cake, it's a messy one.

Maybe, if the name was changed to Big Cypress National ORV Park I would not feel so disgusted?

I have to comment on the photo displayed. This is exactly what a "ORV" trail looks like, but as an "ORV" user I've seen these trails many times at their worst and came back the following year and could hardly tell there was a trail there. The plants will and do reclaim the land and if you will stop and actully look at the ruts and in the water you will see numerous animal footprints, the wildlife use the trails probably more than the people do. And also as a hiker in Florida taking a trail be it made by an ATV or by bushhog is much better than trying to wade through the waist high prairie grass and hoping not to find a rattlesnake or cottonmouth. Hunters, backpackers and campers all use the roads and trails made by "ORV's" so in my opinion having some trails benefit everyone and everything.

I have a few things to say one is that i know many OVRer and 98% of them care more about a trail then most vistor because that is there backyard i have seen it from south florida to the northwest. I have lived all over the US and they are in every state and are great people and most adhear to the treadlightly plan. I have seen so called vistor come to the everglade and dump more trash in two to four hours then most off-roader do in a weekend. The other is that in the above writting MR.Matthew Schwartz say " Superintendent Gustin is out of line and is violating a previous park service decision. She should fulfill her duties as steward of an irreplaceable piece of public land and change course immediately. But it was her decision to close said lands and isn't her job to work with all the poeple in the area and its her decision to reopen the the trails. This is something i don't get when the National Park Service shut down an area of land they are doing a great job and has your surrport but when they do something that you think is wrong like reopening land they are in "violation" but thats what my tax dollar are for to pay her to make that decision. He also says there are only 2000 permit holders but this is from lack of knowing the trails are there. I know many people in south florida that would get said permit and use land and its trails. Another thing is that alot of those 30 miles of "trails" are gravel or dirt road something else he leave out. I know because not only have i lived in south florida along time but it is also where i was born, i have been there many time my self riding a bike or walking and i belive that ORVer sould also be welcome.

Thank you

radom walker, you are right i love four wheeling too its fun i can't see how someone wouldn't like it. and/or want to get rid of it, anyway nice comment!!!! : ]

Well as a camping enthusiast I value the natural spectacle that is the great outdoors in all her beauty. But I don't think ORV users are to blame entirely for the condition of the trails. Even the smallest rut in the mud turns into a disaster when a terrential downpour is thrown into the mix. Personally, I feel the ORV trails should only be available during dry conditions. It would be the responsibility of the rangers which are paid by our taxes, to monitor the conditions on a daily or weekly basis to determine wether or not it is suitable for use. Think about it, you go down a trail with what ever tread type tire you want during dry conditions and not much if any damage is done nor is there displacement of earth. But if you let them run in there during a terrential downpour either before, during or after. You will see landscapes similar to the picture posted above.

That's just my 02. and there is more if you'd like to hear me out.

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