Panthers, Swamp Buggies, and Nature

By Matthew Schwartz

The recent article on the National Park Service's decision to re-open off-road vehicle trails in the Bear Island section of Big Cypress provides a good discussion. However, no matter how important the panther is to the story, it is far from the only objection the environmental community has to this poorly thought-out decision.
According to the terms of the July 2000 Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan (which regulates ORV use within the preserve), most of these lands were deemed off limits to ORVs even without the presence of panthers. Far from being "dry and forested," much of the newly opened area consists of vast tracts of low-lying, wet prairie, inundated for most of the year.
Prairies are identified by the management plan as the "vegetation community most affected by ORV use." The plan goes on to list effects such as the loss of vegetation, exposure of underlying soils, rutting, compaction and the very likely spread of invasive plant species. Dispersed use due to a lack of natural obstacles is also cited. As stated in the September 2000 Record of Decision, "Environmentally sensitive areas, such as prairies, will be closed to ORV use."

Another objection to this decision relates to the length of the trails. While the management plan calls for approximately 30 miles of ORV trails in Bear Island, the new alignment provides for more than 34 miles of designated trails plus an additional seven miles of "secondary" trails. Although secondary trails are permitted by the ORV management plan, they are required to have a specific destination such as a campsite. In Bear Island, the only destination given by the NPS for the re-opened secondary trails is that they provide access to a "hunting area." This is not consistent with either the letter or the spirit of the management plan.
In 2006, the Department of the Interior released its new guidelines for the National Park Service. One of the key management principles was to "ensure that conservation will be predominant when there is a conflict between the protection of resources and their use." This is echoed by the NPS' own "precautionary principle" -- "in all situations involving conflicts between resource protection and resource use, the National Park Service would decide in favor of resource protection."
In addition to the endangered Florida panther, Big Cypress National Preserve is home to no less than 29 other animals listed as threatened, endangered or species of special concern. These include mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and a mollusk. Many of these are also affected by ORV travel. The University of Florida is conducting research on the effects of ORVs on amphibians and small mammals in Big Cypress prairies.
Plant life is equally diverse: Of the more than 850 species found in the preserve, 72 are listed by the state of Florida as threatened or endangered.
Perhaps more than any of its other qualities, Big Cypress is defined by this explosion of biodiversity. Proper use and enjoyment are, of course, expected and encouraged in any unit of the National Park Service. However, use and enjoyment should never extend to activities which have been shown to damage or are likely to damage natural resources. In a recent National Geographic special issue on "Our National Parks in Peril," an aerial photo of Big Cypress received a two-page spread. The caption? "Scarface."
We who live in Broward County are fortunate to have this national treasure in our backyard. I and others often lead hiking trips into remote sections of the preserve only about an hour from Fort Lauderdale. Wet feet, the only drawback, are a small price to pay to experience the natural beauty and tranquility of South Florida as it once was.
As a unit of our National Park System, Big Cypress is the property of all Americans and few of the nearly 450,000 annual visitors to the preserve do so for the purpose of ORV travel. In the context of the current controversy, it is worth repeating the mission statement of the NPS here: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Matthew Schwartz is the political chairman of the Sierra Club of Broward County, Florida.