The Big Cypress Wilderness Robbery

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The Big Cypress Wilderness Robbery

Park Service Scheme to Strip 40,000 Preserve Acres of Wilderness Eligibility Bared

Washington, DC — The National Park Service broke its own policies and contorted statutory direction in a behind-the-scenes effort to open up much of the 147,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve “Addition lands” to off-road vehicle (ORV) traffic, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Unless NPS Director Jon Jarvis reverses the actions of his subordinates in response to an administrative appeal filed by PEER, management of this large south Florida park unit will soon be ensnarled in litigation.

In May 2009, the NPS put a Draft General Management Plan for the Addition out for public comment with the announcement that over 111,000 acres of lands added to the Preserve in 1988 were “eligible” as wilderness.  Less than a year later, NPS officials decided that 40,000 of those wilderness acres should instead be open to motorized recreation, which is prohibited by law in designated wilderness.

In order to accomplish this, NPS superintendent Pedro Ramos and Regional Director David Vela first asked Director Jarvis to waive national Management Policies requiring that wilderness eligible lands be managed so as not to forfeit future designation as wilderness.  When Jarvis refused to grant the waiver, Ramos and Vela did a very quick reassessment of the wilderness character of the target lands which –

  • Was done without public notice or participation.  Vela later claimed the quickie 2010 reassessment was actually just a continuation of the previous 2006 assessment which found the lands to have wilderness character;
  • Expanded 25-fold the non-wilderness corridors surrounding every trail, canal or road.  Increasing the buffer from .01 miles to .25 miles on both sides of every trail will accommodate large vehicles going off-trail and gouging large ruts through the swampy Big Cypress Preserve; and
  • Applied never before used criteria in violation of Wilderness Act precepts and agency policy.  The new 13-page reassessment supposedly was done not from the vantage of a “common visitor” but from the eyes of a “manager” although previous assessments were conducted by NPS managers.

“In Big Cypress, Park Service officials crudely gamed the process to reach a pre-determined result,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, characterizing the NPS explanation as tantamount to asking “who are you going to believe – us or your lying eyes?” as the land at issue is clearly wild and largely inaccessible.

In late December 2010, PEER filed a complaint against the reassessment under the Data Quality Act, which requires agency decision documents to be accurate, reliable and consistent.  In a letter of June 9, 2011, Regional Director Vela rejected the PEER complaint.  Yesterday, PEER filed an appeal that is now before NPS Director Jarvis.  In the interim, PEER and a coalition of groups have filed a Notice of Intent to Sue NPS for violating the Endangered Species Act in opening Big Cypress backcountry to motorized hunting to the detriment of the endangered Florida panther and other listed wildlife.

“Beyond the future of the Big Cypress National Preserve, this is about whether there is any integrity in Park Service decision-making,” Ruch added.  “This appeal is the last chance Director Jarvis has to do the right thing before we see him in court.”

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