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Published December 22, 2007 05:35 PM

Big Cypress National Preserve Threatened by Damaging Off-Road Vehicle Use

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - A coalition of conservation groups today filed a lawsuit to protect Big Cypress National Preserve from damaging off-road vehicle use. The suit responds to a decision by the Park Service to open previously closed areas of the Preserve to swamp buggies and other off-road vehicles.

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The approximately 20 miles of newly established off-road vehicle routes are in the most sensitive habitats of the Bear Island Unit, an area in the northwest corner of Big Cypress frequented by the critically endangered Florida panther. The Florida panther population, isolated in southern Florida to 5 percent of its historic range, is estimated at fewer than 100. The Bear Island area is known for its prairies, marshes and cypress swamps, interspersed with hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods.

"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."

In 2000, the Park Service completed an off-road vehicle management plan to reverse years of massive damage from widespread off-road vehicle use that left large ruts in the ground, disturbed water flow, ripped up trees and tall grasses, and impacted the habitat of the Florida panther and other wildlife. The agency decided to protect the prairies and marshes in Bear Island by designating specific off-road vehicle routes away from these areas. This year, in a turnaround, the Park Service opened these areas to off-road vehicle use without performing an environmental analysis and without performing studies of the impacts on the Florida Panther, as it was legally required to do.

"Big Cypress has some of the last wild, undeveloped open spaces in southern Florida," said Matthew Schwartz, who is political chair of the Florida Sierra Club's Broward Group and frequently leads hikes in the preserve. "The National Park Service must change its decision to allow off-road vehicle use in such a sensitive area. The Park Service is supposed to protect Big Cypress, not encourage damage to it."

"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," added Laura Bevan, regional director for The Humane Society of the United States. "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."

"These specific Bear Island off-road vehicle trails were closed for resource protection and by reopening them the Park Service has once again allowed significant resource damage to occur," said Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project.

"There are places off-road vehicles just don't belong. Off-road vehicles churn the Bear Island meadows into mud which require costly wetland restoration," said Sarah Peters of Wildlands CPR.

According to the groups' lawsuit, by opening up these habitats to off-road vehicle use, the National 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."

"Moreover, we are concerned that the Park Service doesn't have the needed funding and staffing to adequately manage and enforce off-road vehicle policies that protect this sensitive wetland area for visitors to enjoy," said John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The conservation groups filing suit including Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, National Parks Conservation Association, The Florida Biodiversity Project, The Wilderness Society, and Wildlands CPR are represented in this litigation by Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.

Source: Defenders of Wildlife

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