Groups Sue Park Service Over ORV Use in Big Cypress National Preserve

ORV's can leave damaging ruts, such as these pictured in the Bear Island Unit of Big Cypress National Preserve. Matthew Schwartz photo.

A coalition of seven groups is suing the National Park Service over its decision to reauthorize off-road vehicle use in an area of Big Cypress National Preserve, saying the move directly impacts sensitive Florida panther habitat.

Preserve Superintendent Karen Gustin has said her decision to open 20 miles of ORV routes in the Bear Island Unit is justified and that by doing so preserve managers will establish a well-defined trail network, one that will be easier to regulate. Superintendent Gustin also has said that while the Bear Island landscape is used by Florida panthers, so are other areas of the preserve.

The Bear Island area is known for its marl prairies, marshes and cypress swamps, interspersed with hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods.

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 the 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, Superintendent Gustin determined that those 20 miles of closed trails could be reopened.

But the groups that filed a lawsuit on Friday -- the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, The Florida Biodiversity Project, and Wildlands CPR -- maintain the reopened ORV routes are located within "the most sensitive habitats of the Bear Island Unit."

“Big Cypress and the Florida panther deserve better protection,” said Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The National Park Service started protecting areas while still allowing some off-road vehicle use in 2000, now the agency is taking a wrong turn that will harm the prairies, cypress swamps, and critical panther habitat in the Preserve.”

Laura Bevan, the regional director of The Humane Society of the United States, said it makes no sense to open up Bear Island to more ORV use when Florida's natural landscape is being over-developed.

“Florida's over-development is surging, and that is precisely why it's so important to have basic protections in place for wildlife in areas such as Big Cypress National Preserve,” she said. “The National Park Service should limit off-road vehicle use in Big Cypress so that it does not cause lasting damage to panthers and other imperiled wildlife.”

According to the groups’ lawsuit, by opening up these habitats to ORV use, the Park Service is violating the 2000 off-road vehicle plan, the National Park Service Organic Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws, regulations, and policies.

Last year, the National Park Service adopted Management Policies that identified its paramount mission as the preservation and protection of park resources and values. The policies specifically state that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant.”

“Big Cypress is a special place for many Americans because of its cypress trees, vast marshes, and wildlife, including the Florida panther,” said Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society. “The Park Service must place its highest priority on protecting the Preserve. It is what the American people expect and what the agency is required to do.”

John Adornato of the NPCA questions whether the Park Service has the staff or the funding "to adequately manage and enforce off-road vehicle policies that protect this sensitive wetland area for visitors to enjoy.”

Comments

Conservation should be predominant. Superintendant Gustin is supposed to be the person overseeing this responsibility, but it seems her responsibilitiy lies with the snowmobilers. Protecting endangered species and the environment should be the priority here. All it takes is one change and significant damage could be done. Future generations should have the chance to see a pristine environment without the encroachment of snowmobiles.

Snowmobiles in Florida? What's next, swamp buggies in Alaska?

i 'm not with the shutting down of orv but limit it to clubs and club trail permit rides and then fine the entire club if rules are broken the club is fined or have a gunner from the state park system and by the way i want his or hers job.
get real we spend moneys on a lot more trivial things in the park system and permits could offset cost
there is a way if you look, if no one is there is it worth it all ?
if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there is there a noise !!!!!!!
ps: clubs are beng pushed out of the park system.
why divide and concuer do they want to fight one big voice or many little voices

it really looks like from the photo that clear cutting is he big issue here not the trail

Sorry, Mookie, I meant ORV use. I've just got snowmobiles on my mind lately with all the talk about it. Swamp buggies in Alaska - well, you never know what might happen with global warming.

Preserve Superintendent Karen Gustin has just been transferred to my park: The Olympic National Park in Washington state. Please help me understand the kind of changes this person might implement. I feel like we need to get ahead of her on the information front. We don't want ORVs or even bicycles in our Olympic NP Mountains or anywhere near its beaches.

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

erik
(US NAVY)

I have been riding ORV in the cypress for years and i have felt both sides of idiousy in the park from both sides of the issue. i have on occasion picked up trash while riding, mainly beer cans. on my way out i was stopped with several cans old, dirty, sun faded cans. when i was stopped and told i was going to be given a open container ticket for every can on my bike! had a sienior officer not shown up and said something i would have been ticketed! on another ocassion after meeting up with some hickers packing up and leaving trash behind another officer this time came by and we advised him of the litter we were left with and had to clean up, he said what can you do and then did nothing as the hickers walked away. so i realy feel like if your on ORV you are just a target but if you walk the park you can do anything you want. the issue people isnt ORV it is PEOPLE in general. we should all be responsible enough to enjoy the land and keep it green. by the way , it is said that it takes years or longer for the enviroment to recover from peoples presence but when we were stopped from riding places such as at the squares it took only a few months for it to be completely grown over again, like we were never their.Mother nature is tougher than us. if you wanted to destroy the park it would take heavy equipmant ,,,,, like whats being used to install those designated trails that are redirecting water and destroying the park as well.

and if you dont want me out their than stop making me title and register my bikes in florida! or give me a place to ride.