From Bill Eubanks and Defenders’ Board Member Eric Glitzenstein
Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve encompasses one of the nation’s most unique ecosystems, containing majestic strands of cypress domes, dozens of federally protected species, including the highly endangered Florida panther, and a critical hydrological pattern that serves as a filter for water that ends up in the Everglades and as the drinking water for South Florida’s residents. Due to climate change and rapid commercial and residential development in South Florida, the Preserve and its vulnerable resources are subject to increasing pressures, and it is critical that we create safeguards to protect these resources.
The most avoidable threat to panthers, vegetation and hydrology in the Preserve are the adverse impacts of off-road vehicles (ORVs). Prior to 1995, the National Park Service (NPS) did not regulate ORV use in the Preserve, which led to the creation of approximately 23,000 miles of ORV trail where use of these vehicles routinely disturbed soil and plants, flushed panthers and other wildlife from the Preserve, and disrupted water flows that are essential to maintaining an ecological balance in the Preserve and the Everglades.
In 1995, several conservation groups brought a lawsuit challenging that NPS’s failure to regulate ORV use in the Preserve resulted in numerous violations of federal environmental laws. NPS agreed to settle that case and to create an ORV management plan to significantly reduce the extent of ORV use in the Preserve to sustainable levels. In 2000, NPS issued its final ORV plan, which reduced the mileage of ORV trails in the Preserve from 23,000 to only 400 miles. When ORV users sued, claiming it was unlawful to curtail some ORV use, Defenders and other conservation organizations argued that the plan actually helped NPS better comply with federal laws. The court ruled in our favor and upheld the new plan with no more than 400 miles of ORV trails throughtout the Preserve — a sign that the Preserve’s resources could finally return to a more natural state.
In 2007, however, NPS reopened approximately 23 miles of trails in the Bear Island Unit — the most sensitive ecological area in the Preserve, and the area where panthers are most likely to be found. Those trails had been expressly closed by the 2000 ORV management plan, but NPS reopened them in 2007 with no explanation as to why the agency was reversing course. Defenders and other conservation groups brought a new lawsuit challenging the reopening of the trails. During the course of the lawsuit, it became clear that NPS reopened those trails simply because ORV users were urging that they be opened, and regardless of the on-the-ground environmental impacts of that decision.
Earlier this year, a federal court once again ruled in Defenders’ favor. It determined that NPS’s trail reopening violated several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. In particular, the court found that NPS is bound by its ORV management plan, and it cannot change its management direction mid-stream without going through all the necessary environmental reviews to make sure the new course of action will not damage the Preserve’s natural resources.
This outcome is a huge victory for the Preserve and its wildlife because it means that NPS cannot abandon the resource-protective 2000 ORV management plan that Defenders fought for and won in an earlier lawsuit. The 23 miles of illegally-opened ORV trails in a critical area have now been indefinitely closed to ORV use, and the agency will finally have to grapple with some related questions about how it manages ORV use in ecologically sensitive areas.
As the Big Cypress National Preserve Off-Road Vehicle Advisory Committee (of which Laurie MacDonald, Director of Florida Programs, is a committee member) continues to meet to make trail recommendations to NPS, these issues are sure to be front and center. In any event, while this case brings another chapter in the Big Cypress saga to a close by granting the Preserve’s resources much-needed protection, there is still much work to do in South Florida as climate change, development and motorized recreation continue to strain the unique resources of this diverse ecosystem.
Bill Eubanks and Eric Glitzenstein are attorneys with Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, a public interest law firm in Washington, DC that has represented Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups in litigation over ORV use in the Big Cypress National Preserve for nearly 20 years.