This past Thanksgiving, south Floridians reading their morning paper were greeted by a story in the Sun Sentinel.
The article reported a decision by the National Park Service (NPS) to permit motorized recreation on 146,000 acres of what is likely the most pristine wildlife habitat remaining in south Florida. The NPS plan will create a 130 mile network of primary off-road vehicle (ORV) trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Lands. Two parking lots, a still to be determined number of secondary trails, and a campground will also be constructed to accommodate the influx of new motorized visitors. The complete NPS decision can be downloaded at the preserve's website here.
South Florida Wildlands Association, along with numerous local, state, and national organizations, is deeply opposed to this decision.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
The Addition Lands are a national treasure. Added to the 582,000 acres of the original preserve by The Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988, the Senate report accompanying this legislation referred to the Addition as "one of the few remaining large parcels of pristine land left in Florida" and noted "its environmental importance and beauty is unquestioned." On the House side, the Addition was referred to as an area of "unique wild beauty," and as "habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, including the Florida panther, the bald eagle, native orchids and many other species."
This finding is no surprise to the many who regularly visit the Addition on foot. They come to experience south Florida as it existed long before our region became home to 6 million residents and a vacation destination for many millions more. Bird and animal watchers, hikers, nature photographers, native plant enthusiasts and even amateur astronomers all enjoy the tranquil beauty of a piece of land that is also habitat for 31 listed animals (endangered, threatened, or species of special concern) as well as hundreds of native plants (96 of which are listed by the State of Florida as threatened or endangered). See this story from the Miami Herald for an idea of what a 'swampwalk' in the Addition Lands is like.
THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE DECISION
In their own discussion of the ecological impacts expected from their decision, the NPS provides the following summary:
"The key impacts of implementing the preferred alternative would include moderate, long-term, adverse, and mostly localized impacts on surface water flow; long-term, moderate, adverse and potentially Addition-wide impacts on exotic/nonnative plants; long-term, moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the Florida panther; long term, minor to moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on (likely to adversely affect) the red-cockaded woodpecker; long-term, minor to moderate, adverse and mostly localized impacts on major game species."
See photo for a look at what ORV impacts in the Big Cypress look like on the ground.
This photo was taken just before NPS opened an area of the preserve (eastern Bear Island - adjacent to the Addition Lands) to public motorized recreation. After claiming this trail could sustain motor vehicle use, NPS was forced to close it after less than one season of use due to excessive damage to soils and vegetation.
To say the least, this is a strange decision on the part of folks who are supposed to be stewards of one of America's most unique places. Every single piece of legislation, regulation and guidance dealing with the management of National Park Service units, from the Organic Act of 1916 to the 2006 NPS Management Policies, stresses the need to put natural resource protection before recreation. As summed up by former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in 2006:
"When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Kempthorne said. "That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our Nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment."
What is also strange about this decision is the number of people it will actually benefit. Of the 65,000 registered off-road vehicles in south Florida (nearly 250,000 in the state according the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles) NPS intends to cap the number of off-road vehicle permits for the Addition at 650 (the vast majority of the original preserve is already open to motor vehicles and has an annual cap of 2000 permits). In other words, a still largely pristine resource owned by over 300 million Americans is about to be seriously degraded by the NPS for the recreation and enjoyment of far less than 1 percent of Florida's off-road vehicle community. Millions of dollars will be spent on parking lots, trail construction, stabilization, signage, security, law enforcement, maintenance, and (eventually) restoration, for a fragile piece of land that is unsuitable in every way for what the NPS itself refers to as a 'high impact recreational activity'.
A few words about the effects this decision is likely to have on the Florida panther. This year marks a new record in panther mortality with 23 deaths recorded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission - 16 by vehicle collision (four in December alone), 6 by 'intraspecific aggression' (fights to the death between panthers over dwindling territory and food supply), and one from unknown causes. Of the estimated 80 to 100 panthers which still manage to survive in south Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 29 radio collared panthers known to be using the Addition Lands and closely surrounding areas. A number of uncollared panthers are also known to be present.
In their plan for the Addition, NPS draws on established panther science and accurately describes the panther's needs as follows:
"In general, panther population centers appear to indicate a preference toward large, remote tracts with adequate prey, cover, and reduced levels of human disturbance." They add that the "survival and recovery of the Florida panther is dependent on.protection and enhancement of the extant population, associated habitats, and prey resources" and recommend the reduction of "hunting pressure on panther prey species, especially deer and hogs" and the regulation of "ORV use and other human activities more closely because of potential disturbance to panther habitat".
Unfortunately, the plan being put forward by the NPS goes in a completely different direction from what their own science recommends. It fragments panther habitat, makes it less remote, removes large amounts of prey, reduces cover, and greatly increases levels of human disturbance. In short, it is the exact opposite of the type of management which should occur in one of the Florida panther's last holdouts.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the lead agency for protection of the panther, has also weighed in on this plan - and unfortunately have given it their qualified support. In their Biological Opinion, the FWS opinion discounts three previous scientific studies referenced in their own "Panther Recovery Plan" which found decreases in use of habitat by panthers during periods of heightened ORV activity. The full recovery plan is here.
Going back decades, the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a near perfect record of approving well over a hundred new residential and commercial developments in panther habitat. Having decided this year not to grant the panther critical habitat protection (the panther itself is protected - it's habit much less so), their response to opening up the Addition Lands to motorized hunting follows the same familiar pattern of concern followed by ultimate approval:
"...it is the Service's biological opinion that implementation of the PA (NPS's preferred alternative) for the Addition Lands, as proposed, is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Florida panther. No critical habitat has been designated for this species; therefore, none will be affected."
With FWS acknowledging that nearly one percent of the panther's remaining habitat is lost each year to development, the long term outlook for Florida's state animal and the only big cat in the eastern United States is not good. A video produced by a colleague several years ago explains the plight of the panther on private lands outside the preserve (and demonstrates why protected public lands and critical habitat designation are so important):
And this photo essay of southwest Florida (a bird's eye view of what all this permitted development in panther habitat actually looks like) simply has to be seen to be believed:
It should also be noted that while the Addition is bordered to the south and west by the original preserve, it is also bordered to the north by the Seminole and to the east by the Miccosukee tribal lands. Both tribes are deeply opposed to an NPS plan that will bring motorized recreation to their borders. Their concerns include the likelihood of increased incursions and game poaching on tribal lands; disturbance to native American archaeological sites as well as ceremonial sites currently in use in the Addition; spread of invasive plant species on tribal lands; negative impacts to major game species with potentially severe consequences for the panther; and disruption of wildlife migrations between tribal lands and the Addition.
Another group opposing this plan is the Florida Trail Association. They are being removed from a major section of their 1,000 mile trail between Big Cypress and Gulf Islands National Seashore, in use by hikers for at least 30 years, to make way for the new off-road vehicle routes. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged that NPS change course and select a plan (Alternative F) which maximizes federal wilderness in the Addition and allows no use of recreational motor vehicles. The EPA's question to the NPS and FWS on how the removal of prey for the Florida panther will impact the species' survival continues to go unanswered.
Apologies for a long email - obviously this is a complex topic. Hopefully the holidays will give you a chance to catch up on some reading. If you've made it this far, please take a moment to send National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis a message. Advise him not to sign this decision on January 4th (the date currently scheduled for formal approval). Instead, ask him to choose a different course of action (Alternative F) which protects a unique and rare wilderness area for people and wildlife, creates maximum federal wilderness in the Addition, and is consistent with the true spirit of the National Park Service. As stated in the Organic Act of 1916, the mission of the National Park Service is:
"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."
Director Jarvis can be contacted at:
While South Florida Wildlands Association is a new Florida 501(c)3 non-profit (April, 2010), our work on this issue goes back years.
If you have the ability to do so, any financial help you can offer to this effort is greatly appreciated and will help South Florida Wildlands Association protect wildlife habitat in Big Cypress and throughout the greater Everglades. This battle will not be an easy one, but protection of what's worth protecting seldom is. Contributions in any amount can be made by check and mailed to:
South Florida Wildlands Association
P.O. Box 30211
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301
Best wishes for the holidays and the New Year. Feel free to call or email with any questions or comments. And feel free to pass this email on to others you believe would be interested.
South Florida Wildlands Association