Florida panthers catch break from National Park Service

Big Cypress National Preserve closes some motorized backcountry routes in response to environmental lawsuit

big_cypress_natlpreserve
Ribbons of trails cut through Big Cypress National Preserve.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —Florida panthers will get at least a temporary reprieve from dirt bikes and off-road vehicles, as the National Park Service agreed to cut motorized in Big Cypress National Preserve.

The agreement with conservation groups requires the park service to close an extensive network of motorized secondary and user-created trails until it conducts an environmental analysis. The park service must also work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure protection for panthers and other rare species in the area.

Conservation groups hope that many of the 146 miles of trails closed in response to their lawsuit will remain closed in perpetuity.

“Our hope is that this agreement has permanently stopped the unchecked expansion of damaging ORVs in Big Cypress Preserve,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At a minimum, it will halt these damaging activities until the completion of a full assessment of their impacts on Florida panthers and other endangered wildlife, as well as sensitive waterways and the wild character of this irreplaceable natural gem.”

“The judge in this case spoke clearly in May of the need to complete further environmental analysis of the secondary trails. We are listening to the judge and will be investing all of our effort to complete this process as expeditiously as possible.” said Superintendent Pedro Ramos.

Big Cypress was the country’s first national preserve, designated by President Gerald Ford in 1974. The preserve is also embarking on a backcountry access plan to manage hiking, camping and secondary off-road vehicle trail placement and designation. The National Park Service anticipates releasing and reviewing draft alternatives of the plan in spring/summer 2015, and estimates that a final record of decision would be signed in 2016.

“We are happy to finally reach a resolution that will close these illegal trails and have an immediate and positive effect on the invaluable resources and wildlife of Big Cypress, and look forward to working with the NPS as they move forward with ORV management efforts,” said Sarah Peters, a program attorney with WildEarth Guardians.

“This settlement returns Big Cypress to the resource-protective vision that NPS had when it issued the ORV Management Plan in 2000, and returns key safeguards to the Preserve’s unique hydrological, soil, vegetative, and wildlife resources,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of South Florida Wildlands Association.

This settlement comes after environmental organizations succeeded in several legal challenges against increased ORV use in the preserve. For example, in July 2012, a federal judge set aside the Park Service’s unauthorized increase in ORV trails in the preserve’s Bear Island Unit after ruling that the 30-fold expansion in trails violated environmental laws and the Park Service’s own ORV-management plan.

In 2013 the organizations filed suit over similar violations concerning massive ORV expansion in two other units of the preserve (referred to as the Corn Dance and Turner River Units), where the Park Service had increased the miles of trails where ORVs may go.

The new settlement agreement resolves the latter lawsuit, with the Park Service closing all of the ORV trails disputed in the lawsuit and bringing the preserve’s ORV trail system back within the mileage limits adopted by the Park Service in its governing ORV-management plan, which was issued in 2000 and reached full implementation in 2011.

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