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Big Cypress National Preserve Superintendent Defends "Addition" Lands ORV Use


Critics charge that wilderness-quality lands in Big Cypress National Preserve were overlooked by officials in their bid to expand ORV use in the preserve.

Amidst charges that he circumvented National Park Service policies on wilderness preservation to provide greater off-road vehicle access to Big Cypress National Preserve, Superintendent Pedro Ramos offers a short history lesson.

The south Florida preserve that covers more than 720,000 acres has a management mandate that differs from that of a "national park," he notes. While oil and gas exploration are not allowed in national parks, it and other uses, such as hunting, trapping, and even ORV use, are permissible in Big Cypress, the superintendent said last week.

“I like to tell people it’s not just different uses, it’s a different mandate from Congress, and it’s not up to us to change the mandate from Congress to manage this place differently than national parks," Superintendent Ramos said during a telephone call.

Many of those who worked for Big Cypress' establishment in 1974 realized various user groups would have to compromise for the preserve to come about, he said.

"There’s some old-timers that are still around that were in the trenches making sure that this place would be protected to perpetuity because it is so special that tell me today that without that compromise, and the vision that some had to think about this new concept of management, the preserve concept, this place would have never been set aside," the superintendent continued. "So it was a place that was created and founded on this concept and promise of compromise, where everybody has a place, where conservation is important. But having access is also important. If we forget that, and if we are not true to the intention of Congress and the mandate that they gave us to the act, we would not only be breaking promises made that resulted in the creation of the place, but we would be violating law, the law that created the preserve, which ultimately is what it all boils down to.”

But some organizations believe Superintendent Ramos is violating laws and bending the process to benefit ORV use with the final version of a general management plan for the 147,000 acres of "Addition" lands that came to Big Cypress in 1996 as part of a land swap. At the time the Addition was added to the preserve's northeastern corner, it was placed off-limits to ORV travel and hunting until a management plan could be developed.

When Superintendent Ramos released the final version of that plan in November, it called for up to 130 miles of ORV trails, and as many as 650 ORV permits annually. Along the way to developing that plan, his critics allege that the superintendent and his staff went around Park Service Director Jon Jarvis' wishes and denied wilderness eligibility for 40,000 acres in the Addition section.

“Under (President) Bush, we never saw this type of blatant maneuvering to reduce park protections that we are seeing now at Big Cypress,” claimed Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in a statement issued last week. “In the 50-year history of wilderness review in the National Park System there have been few, if any, examples of disqualifying eligible lands to accommodate motorized recreation, and certainly nothing of this magnitude.”

Others criticizing the superintendent's plan are the National Parks Conservation Association and the South Florida Wildlands Association, groups that not only take issue with the ORV access allowed under the plan but worry about its impacts on the highly endangered Florida panther.

In launching its salvo, PEER assembled several documents that address how Big Cypress officials over the years have evaluated acreage in the preserve for official wilderness designation, legislation specific to the Addition lands, and documentation of how Superintendent Ramos "reanalyzed" wilderness eligible lands to significantly reduce the number of acres potentially suitable for wilderness designation.

Among those documents is one that mentions a meeting Superintendent Ramos and the Park Service's Southeast regional director, David Vela, had with Director Jarvis early last year. According to PEER's account (attached below), the superintendent and Mr. Vela wanted Mr. Jarvis' approval to waive a section of the Park Service's Management Policies pertaining to wilderness-quality landscapes so they could allow ORV use in the Addition lands.

The specific section of the 2006 Management Policies states that, "[T]he National Park Service will take no action that would diminish the wilderness eligibility of an area possessing wilderness characteristics until the legislative process of wilderness designation has been completed. Until that time management decisions will be made in expectation of eventual wilderness designation.”

When Mr. Jarvis denied that waiver request, PEER maintains that "Ramos and Vela implemented a new strategy. If lands deemed eligible for wilderness stand in the way of their pending ORV decision, they would simply reanalyze the lands. They conducted a quick re-analysis. Vela submitted the re-analysis to the Director on April 20, 2010. Deputy Director Dan Wenk approved it on May 12, 2010."

When reached last week, Superintendent Ramos said he hadn't yet had time to fully review PEER's allegations. He maintained, however, that the reduction of "wilderness eligible" acres in the Addition lands from more than 111,000 identified in 2009 to 47,067 acres was the result of park staff taking into consideration more than 17,000 comments submitted on the draft version of the Addition lands management plan.

“I don’t know what they mean by that," he replied when asked about PEER's contention that he and his staff reclassified wilderness-quality lands. "I believe that they’re claiming that we have somehow violated the Data Quality Act of 2000. And we will have to take a look at their complaint, and respond to them accordingly after we review it.

"With regards to the determination that was issued as part of this release of the final EIS most recently, we put out the draft of the document last year," Superintendent Ramos said. "And through the fall we engaged in pretty intensive -- and believe me, intensive civic engagement -- we went on tour down here in southern Florida, had public meetings, we held wilderness hearings that were presided over by a hearing official, we accepted and carefully considered about 17,000 comments.

“And as a result of all of that civic engagement and interaction that we had with the community at large, all sides, we then made some adjustments and revisions to the plan that was just released."

PEER's contention that the final plan was concocted out of public review and input couldn't be further from the truth, the superintendent went on.

"We have acted in a very, very inclusive manner for the 11 years that it has taken us to get to where we’re at," he said. "If we did this for 11 more years I think that people would still be as polarized as they are today. ... I believe that we have heard every single perspective that is out there and carefully considered it."

PEER last week filed a complaint (attached below) with the Park Service "charging that the Big Cypress wilderness reanalysis violates the Data Quality Act which requires materials distributed or relied upon by federal agencies be accurate, reliable and in compliance with law and policy."

In that complaint the organization contends that "Park Service officials violated NPS Management Policies governing wilderness eligibility assessments and employed standards wildly inconsistent from those employed by both NPS and other federal land management agencies. PEER is demanding that the reanalysis be withdrawn and the 2009 wilderness assessment is reinstated or that a new, peer-reviewed assessment be performed."

“This transparent land-management gerrymandering does not pass the laugh test,” said Mr. Ruch. “It is no coincidence that the 40,000 acres formerly suitable for wilderness are now suitable only for ORV trails.”

As to the plan's impact on Florida panthers, Superintendent Ramos disagrees that it will be detrimental to their future.

"I agree that we all collectively need to be responsible to do what needs to be done to protect the panther, and to get it to its recovery so that it can be delisted," he said. "It’s a very special species that plays an important role in the Big Cypress and also in the greater Everglades."

Specific to the preserve's role in panther preservation, Superintendent Ramos said Big Cypress has reached its capacity for the animals.

"... every room is taken here at Big Cypress when it comes to panthers. We have a significant amount of panthers living at Big Cypress. They have been living here despite the fact that there is hunting and there is ORV use and there is oil and gas activities taken place," he said. "What concerns me the most is -- and I think we need to be paying more attention to -- is our success in working with private land owners outside of public lands in coming together to provide corridors and otherwise methods for us to allow the panther to have habitat to use successfully outside of the public lands, managed either by the state, local or federal government.”

The final ORV management plan for the Addition lands currently is awaiting final approval by the regional office. You can view the document at this site.

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“I like to tell people it’s not just different uses, it’s a different mandate from Congress, and it’s not up to us to change the mandate from Congress to manage this place differently than national parks," Superintendent Ramos said during a telephone call.

Page 10 of the Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan for the Big Cypress National Preserve responds as follows:

"The enabling legislation states that the preserve, as a unit of the national park system, is to be managed in a manner that will ensure its ‘natural and ecological integrity in perpetuity.’ The legislation further states the management of the area should be in accordance ‘with the provisions of the Act of August 25, 1916’ (NPS Organic Act). Thus, the natural and ecological integrity of the preserve is the fundamental value that Congress directed the National Park Service to protect."

Matt Schwartz
South Florida Wildlands Association

Mr Schwartz is correct but may not want to admit Mr Ramos the Superintendent fo the Addition and Big Cypress National Preserve is also correct. My belief is that PEER, NPCA and Matt Schwartz and other groups that use these controversies as a fund raising tool, just can't accept the fact that this place is not a PARK but a Preserve with 2 difficult to balance objectives according to law.
On the other side of the coin traditional Gladesmen visitors, hunters and others believe they are being short changed by a level of ORV access well below expectations of themselves the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or Collier County's Board of Commissioners none of which supported any Wilderness at all while supporting more reasonable access than the draft plan suggested.
One ace in the hole the State has is a reverter clause in law capable of facilitating the State taking the land back and managing it themselves.
Those who throw rocks into turbulent waters do not know where the ripples will go.

The Everglades and all of America are for everyone not just a select elite people to lock up and control. Right now there are fences and gates and locks on access to the Everglades by the Park Service. And on another note, everyone should be an environmentalist in their own environment. Organizing elite groups bent on the denial of our constitutional rights pursue happiness such as the enjoyment of the Everglades are a threat to all free people, and eventually to the animals themselves. There's no place for fanatic behavior in American culture, and those sort of groups need to be revealed for what they really are ... greedy and selfish.

thank you Pedro...

My name is Osvaldo Gonzalez. I am an avid fisherman and hunter in the Miami-Dade County and Collier County area for about 30 years. After waiting all year, on September 3, 2011 (the opening day of archery season in the big cypress) my day was over before it began at 5:55 a.m. After walking a little over a mile to my tree stand on Turner River Road (walking side), I got bit by an Eastern Diamond Back Rattle snake on the back side of the calf. It was a very traumatic experience for me from the time of bite until I received the comforting voice of Robert from Poison Control. Now recuperating, I have some things I would like to point out and it disappoints me to even think I would need to do this.

Being a veteran of the cypress from the time of the bite I knew immediately I needed assistance. Not bringing my Spot with me as I was hunting with a friend was “my” first and only mistake in this traumatic incident. Once bitten and realized it was of a viper I SOS my friend and we began the travel out of the cypress. By God’s lifted hands and my adrenaline I got myself out of cypress only to be able to walk no further. As my friend started driving me down Turner River Road I was so happy to see and run into 2 of the NPS Rangers (a male and female officer) A huge relief came over me and I remember saying, “Thank you God, I’m going to be alright now.” Seeing as the NPS Rangers are out in the Cypress every day and being our protection, I knew I was going to be alright. My friend hailed them over and as we got up to them in the vehicles, I told them, “Sir, I need help, I got bit by a venous snake and I am in a lot of pain.” To my DISBELIEF, NO state of emergency presence for a human life was given, they verbally gave me two options; 1 – “I can call Collier County paramedic for you”or 2 - “You can drive yourself there” As Numb and dumbfounded shocked by this comment, I told them “I guess I will take care of myself then.” I already knew Venom 1 and my anti-venom was in Miami-Dade County and that is where I needed to go, this was my float plan. I told them, “I need to go east” My brave NPS heroes then calmly sat in their SUV and said “GOOD LUCK do you want me to check you out of the Cypress?” Really???

With this, I would like answers: Why aren’t NPS trained for emergencies or if they are, is assisting in venomous bites not an emergency to them? Why wouldn’t NPS know the most direct way or phone to Venom 1 and/or poison control was Dade County? Why is it that they don’t know that Venom 1 would have sent a helicopter to the Cypress and picked me up? Why didn't they offer at least an escort for me to the Dade County line where I told them I was heading, so that the Miccosukee Police wouldn’t pull me over or open a clearing in case of road blockage?

As I got onto Rt41 I made my first attempt in calling 911. The Collier County cell tower picked up the call. The lady who answered told me she would send an ambulance to intersect me to take me to Fort Myers Hospital. Being very gracious, I told her, “I am already heading East.” At that moment she told me, “sir you need to turn around.” Knowing the venom unit would have to leave Miami to go Collier County, I told her, “Ma’am I’m sorry, I need to go east.” Her response to me was “Sir if you do not listen to me, you will die.”

Seeing as I was the one bit and in pain and knew the “worst”possible outcome for my situation, I still knew where I needed to go. Telling me I will die is not calming nor did it make sense. Today, I am still sitting here in complete amazement and wonder if I would have listened to both the NPS and Collier 911 would I have died or gone through needless surgeries or extended health issues?

As I approached the Miami-Dade county line, I phoned 911 and said, “I got bit by a venomous snake can I please speak to poison control and/or Venom 1.” I was patched over and my vehicle make, model, color, tag etc was taken and then they kept me on the phone to calm me while they cleared the roads to the hospital. When I got to the hospital Venom 1 with the antivenom was waiting as well as multiple other doctors, surgeons and health care professionals.

Now, my frustration and anger to you: Don't we TRAIN our rangers to take control of emergencies or is their only purpose to give citations and harass folks? I’ve been harassed in the past when I’m coming or going to camp in the Turner River unit to see my “licenses and permits.” As a tax payer I believe I do pay their salary and in time of emergencies, they SIT in their SUV? As you can tell I am very angry just thinking of what could have happened if I didn’t remain calm. I am choosing to write this e-mail so this WON’T happen again. I have lots of friends and family that enjoy the glades and South Florida an with 115 venomous bites a year I can’t believe there isn’t more fatalities with complete ignorance and failure to give humanitarian help that you are getting paid to give.

Meeting “my heroes”, the guys from Venom One and poison control, they explained that I did the right thing in this incident to go to Miami and not going to Fort Myers as the rangers and 911 wanted. They also explained had I listened to NPS or Collier County they would have had to airlift me back to Miami for the reason that hospital could not handle a snake bite.

Life lesson learned? Absolutely! I now know what # to call and who to disregard. I hope I never have to use it again. But I will be an advocate and take this straight to the senate if I have to. The NPS action and Collier County 911 need some training and classes how to handle an emergency and who to call and what to do for venomous bites.

I sincerely hope to get some kind of response to this incident.


Osvaldo Gonzalez

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