Conservation groups claim new trails threaten endangered species like the Florida panther and indigo snake
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado is not the only place seeing conflicts between conservation and motorized recreation. In Florida, a coalition of environmental groups says it will challenge a federal plan to open up additional off-road vehicles trails in 146,000 acres of land added to Big Cypress National Reserve in 1988.
But conservation groups say motorized use has resulted in severe damage to the area’s natural resources. In the lawsuit, the groups claim the federal government is not living up to its obligations to protect endangered species like the Florida panther and red-cockaded woodpecker, and threatened species, such as the Eastern indigo snake, which inhabit the area slated to be carved with ORV trails.
The opening legal salvo was fired by Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the South Florida Wildlands Association, and the Florida Biodiversity Project, which are represented by the Washington, D.C. firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal. The Notice of Intent (NOI) to Sue gives the named agencies, the National Park Service, Department of Interior and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 60 days to abate the specified violations of the Endangered Species Act.
“We are asking the federal agencies involved to protect three highly-endangered species: The Florida Panther, the indigo Snake and the red-cockaded Woodpecker,” said Bradley Stark, Esq., representing the Sierra Club. “This letter is intended to provide the agencies with an opportunity to reconsider whether this level of off-road vehicle use is allowable under federal law considering the anticipated impacts to wildlife, habitat, and one of the last pieces of wilderness that remains east of the Rocky Mountains.”
The notice points out that the Big Cypress ORV plan would carve up thousands of acres of habitat essential to the survival of the highly endangered Florida panther. Among the impacts that the agencies failed to even analyze was ORV traffic and motorized hunting that will significantly diminish available prey for the predatory cat.
“The National Park Service is well aware of the critical importance of these lands for numerous threatened and endangered plants and animals in south Florida,” stated Matthew Schwartz, of South Florida Wildlands Association. “The agency could and should have chosen a course of action which puts protection of irreplaceable natural resources above motorized recreation.”
Notably, even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blasted the Big Cypress ORV plan. In a Jan. 4 letter, the EPA expressed concern about ORVs “fragmenting the landscape into a disorganized and destructive web of trails and roads.” EPA also predicted increased air, soil and water pollution.
“These lands represent the largest remaining tract of undesignated wilderness in Florida – a scarce and precious treasure of the American people,” added Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project, pointing out that the impacts from parking lots and access points into formerly undisturbed lands were also completely overlooked.
If no measures are taken by the agencies to bring themselves into compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the groups intend to bring their legal concerns under the Endangered Species Act and other statutes that were overlooked in the decision-making process into federal court.
“Big Cypress is supposed to be a natural preserve, not a motorized recreation area,” stated Jeff Ruch of PEER, noting that the Park Service improperly stripped wilderness eligibility from 40,000 acres of Preserve lands that were then re-designated for ORV trails. “This Big Cypress plan represents a new low for the National Park Service.”