Conservation groups fault National Park Service for flawed approval process
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A coalition of national and local conservation organizations last week went to court to nullify a plan which would open a previously protected section of Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve to 130 miles of trails for off-road vehicles (ORVs).
The lawsuit contends that widespread motorized traffic will degrade the unique natural resources of the 146,000-acre “Addition Lands,” create conflict with non-motorized users and fragment one of the last major wilderness areas in the eastern United States.
The groups claim that the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior violated the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, the Park Service Organic Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by approving motorized use in the area.
Acquired through the Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988, these lands became publicly owned in 1996. They have been closed to both ORV use and ORV-assisted hunting ever since. Of the thousands of species of flora and fauna found in the Addition Lands, nearly 100 plants are listed by the State of Florida as endangered or threatened while 29 animal species have federally protected status.
“These lands are a treasure trove of biodiversity,” said Matthew Schwartz, director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. The animals at risk include many of Florida’s most iconic species, such as the critically endangered Florida panther (with an estimated 120 remaining in the wild), Cape Sable seaside sparrow, wood stork, red-cockaded woodpecker, Everglades snail kite, eastern indigo snake and the American crocodile.
“They are owned by and are a part of the natural heritage of all Americans. The National Park Service is prioritizing motorized recreation over the protection of an irreplaceable resource here, contrary to both law and its mission.”
Plaintiffs, the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), South Florida Wildlands Association, Florida Biodiversity Project and Wilderness Watch, are represented by the Washington, DC public interest law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.
In its own analysis of the “key impacts,” the park servi e admitted that its decision will likely have adverse impacts on hydrology, soils, vegetation, and several listed species. It will also facilitate the spread of invasive and exotic plant species throughout the Addition Lands by disturbing native plants and soils and dispersing seeds. The visitor experience for the current non-motorized users will deteriorate through negative impacts to the natural soundscapes and landscapes.
A 2009 draft plan for the area in question identified about 109,000 acres as “wilderness eligible.” Subsequently, the park service subsequently conducted a re-assessment completely outside of public view which suddenly concluded that only 71,000 acres were eligible and recommended just 47,000 acres be proposed to Congress as future wilderness. The effect of this quick re-assessment would allow much of the addition lands to be fragmented by a network of off-road vehicle trails.
“This suit is necessary because the Park Service improperly rewrote wilderness mapping to produce a result which had been decided behind closed doors,” said Jeff Ruch of PEER. “We expected better of the Park Service under this administration and, thus far, we have been sorely disappointed.”
“This decision is politically, legally and environmentally unsustainable,” said Sierra Club representative Bradley Stark, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of the public comments received on the project urged the Obama administration to minimize resource degradation and instead preserve the historical and non-damaging recreational uses enjoyed by the public.
“It needlessly alienates a large number of Floridians who seek to enjoy the Addition Lands for bird watching, hiking, and other purposes consistent with the Park Service’s mandate to protect the treasured resources of the Addition Lands. This is one of the last pieces of South Florida a parent could show to their child and say ‘This is what our home looked like before settlers arrived over a hundred years ago.’ ”
Filed under: biodiversity, Environment, national parks, public lands, Summit County news Tagged: | Big Cypress National Preserve, conservation, Environment, National Environmental Policy Act, National Park Service, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, United States Fish and Wildlife Service