Warring parties in the 'Amazon of North America' enjoy rare pause between lawsuits

OCHOPEE, Fla. -- A peach-colored motel sits an hour inside the borders of Big Cypress National Preserve, looking like a relic of the 1970s dropped into the middle of Everglades wilderness.

From the parking lot, the preserve sprawls in all directions under a big sky, a landscape of seemingly uninterrupted green punctuated by a single paved road. But the motel is a reminder that people have become as much part of the environment as the endangered Florida panther.

In some ways, Big Cypress is a park of contradictions. It's home to 10 federally protected species, unique wild vegetation and some of the cleanest water in South Florida. But it also hosts oil drillers and hunters. And to get into its backcountry, a visitor with a permit can use everything from a homemade "swamp buggy" to an all-wheel-drive truck.

"It's the Amazon of North America, and nothing else comes close," said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. Even the preserve's neighbor, Everglades National Park, is less wild, its hydrology forever altered by the 6 million people who call South Florida home.

Schwartz's group is one of several environmental organizations -- including the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association -- that have spent years fighting with the National Park Service about how it balances its mission to protect the preserve with its mandate to allow commercial and recreational activities.


The legal debate stems from the compromise in the preserve's creation. In 1974, Congress made Big Cypress one of the first two "national preserves," a new term indicating the tolerance of some commercial activity. At the time, it was a tremendous victory, born of a partnership among environmentalists, sportsmen, local Indian tribes and residents who did not want to see the area turned into a planned airport.

Today, that relationship is strained. Hunters want more access, environmentalists want more preservation, and park officials want to stay out of court. Much of the debate has focused on off-road vehicles, which were once allowed to crisscross the preserve on thousands of miles of informal trails.

Earlier this month, two lawsuits over that issue came to a close -- one in a settlement with environmental groups, and one in a judgment that sided with the park.

For the first time in 20 years, Big Cypress does not have a lawsuit hanging over its head.

Constant juggling

On a recent Friday, Pedro Ramos stood in front of a large map in his office, one of several that now inhabit one wing of the former motel. The motel's pool is still in use -- as evidenced by a few plastic rafts on its deck -- but the rooms are now home and office to NPS employees who oversee the preserve's 729,000 acres.

Ramos pointed out the preserve's natural mosaic of prairies, pinelands, hammocks, cypress swamps and estuaries. But spread throughout the map were also indications of man's influence: a single runway from the failed airport, the dotted lines of trails, the paved road called Tamiami Trail that cuts across the state to link Tampa and Miami.

As the preserve's superintendent, Ramos has adopted a philosophy that mirrors the nuance of the environment he oversees.

"I've been a student at how the preserve came to be how it is," Ramos said, choosing his words carefully as he explained his outlook. "I personally as a superintendent put a tremendous amount of value to all that. I keep my personal opinion out of it. My goal is to make sure we make decisions consistent with that level of compromise. I will not turn my back on that, because I feel that I would be breaking the law."

Ramos has worked at Big Cypress for 14 years and became its superintendent in 2009, priding himself on his outreach to the surrounding communities. But explaining the mission of Big Cypress can be a challenge, in part because it is an anomaly of the national park system.

Big Cypress is not alone in juggling natural resource protection with commercial or recreational use. Some parks have to contend with grandfathered-in businesses; others carry mandates similar to Big Cypress' that allow oil drilling and hunting.

But the preserve has the added confusion of sitting directly north of the better-known Everglades National Park. The two are part of the same natural landscape, with Big Cypress providing fresh water to its lower-elevation sibling. But Everglades boasts more protection -- and visitors may be hard-pressed to see where the line is drawn.

Big Cypress is also healthier, thanks to the fact that it mainly lives off rainwater, while Everglades has been forever altered by development and water diversion. Still, Congress gave full federal protection to the Everglades while including commercial and recreational use in the legislation creating Big Cypress.

"It is not only a tall order that Congress gave us ... but it's hard for us to get the public to understand how we do that and why we do that," Ramos said. "The dilemmas that we are faced regarding this traditional use that you would not find in a national park, it's typically not a yes-or-no answer. It's typically a question of how."

Ramos' interpretation of "how" can diverge from environmental groups' interpretation, as when he and his colleagues proposed allowing off-road vehicles (ORV) into the "addition lands" that were added to the preserve in 1988.

In a lawsuit, environmental groups asserted, among other things, that NPS violated its originating legislation by elevating recreational use over conservation.

But Ramos saw ORV trails as a legal imperative, mandated by Congress and beyond his control. And in a recent decision, a U.S. district court judge agreed.

"[B]oth the Preserve and the Addition were intended to have ORV use, albeit with restrictions," Judge John Steele of the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Florida wrote in his decision. "Barring all ORV use i[n] the Addition would violate these Acts, and therefore failure to bar ORV use in the Addition was not a violation of the APA."

Schwartz of South Florida Wildlands said he recognizes the compromise that was made to create the park -- and is "very happy" with the current state of the original preserve, ORV trails and all.

But, echoing the concerns of many environmentalists, Schwartz questioned the need for more ORV trails in the addition lands. The area has effectively been closed off for years, he said, and now NPS is set to disrupt the wilderness by reintroducing four-wheel drive.

"There are lots of ways that the preserve could have legally justified leaving the addition lands closed," Schwartz said, citing the fact that NPS already closes off portions of the preserve to ORV use.

The recent settlement of a second lawsuit provides more hope for a collaborative future, with the Park Service agreeing to keep 146 miles of so-called secondary trails closed until it conducts an environmental analysis. The agency will also confer with the Fish and Wildlife Service to gauge the trails' effect on the Florida panther and other endangered wildlife.

Such secondary trails lead to specific campsites or destinations, differing from the primary trails that act more as rugged roads traversing the backcountry. Private properties are spread throughout the preserve -- another result of the 1974 compromise.

Some of those are backwoods camps, featuring little more than four plywood walls and a tin roof in the middle of wilderness. Others more resemble residences. On a recent visit, several were visible from the road: worn-down houses with piles of debris in front, or an off-road truck waiting for its next ride.

They all provide yet another layer of personal ownership and rights within the walls of a national park unit. Owners want to be able to get to their property, and explore around it, with off-road vehicles.

But environmentalists worry that adding secondary trails will open up more lands to vehicle damage, essentially bypassing the agreed-on primary network.

Whether the preserve and environmentalists can reconcile their different outlooks remains to be seen.

"I think that completing the [environmental impact statement] will inform us best, and I do believe at the end of the day, we will make a much better decision with regards to secondary trails," Ramos said in a telephone interview after the settlement was announced.

"I'm looking to it as an opportunity to bring everybody closer and back to the table, much like they got very close 40 years ago in order to establish this place as a preserve."

'Unique beyond description'

Beyond the legal wrangling, the debate over how to manage the preserve is partly rooted in how it's experienced.

Most tourists see it from their car windows, the green of the sawgrass giving way to the slightly different green of a hammock and the distant greenish-brown of a cypress swamp. They may pull over on a boardwalk to see the alligators that sit like statues in the muck. A few may hike a couple of miles to get a firsthand experience with Floridian mosquitoes.

But if you're Lyle McCandless, you use a swamp buggy.

A Floridian invention of the 1940s, swamp buggies allow hunters and campers to travel far into the wilderness on trails sometimes covered by 3 feet of water. They once rambled on airplane tires attached to a recycled Ford Model T; today, tractors often provide the wheels for a custom body. But the aim is the same: to build a vehicle that can withstand deep mud and a harsh environment.

McCandless, 71, is passionate about exploring the preserve -- and protecting his right to do it. As president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance, he talks to Ramos often, voicing the opinions of hunters who have spent decades exploring a place that many in South Florida have never even visited.

"We feel Superintendent Ramos has done his best under the circumstances, but the fact is that a basic conflict of interest exists, in that Park Service people are trained and inclined to manage parks, not preserves," he said. "Many activities are allowed in a national preserve that would not be allowed in a national park."

During hunting season, McCandless shoots wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. But when asked about what makes Big Cypress special, McCandless described the scenery.

"The area is so diversified. You've got these beautiful big prairies that have about a foot of water on them in the hunting season. You've got upland areas. You've got these big cypress heads," McCandless said. "It's unique beyond description."

He travels to his camp six to 10 times a year, during the hunting season. To get there, he needs a swamp buggy -- and trails to travel on.

The 400 miles of primary trails NPS has designated in the original preserve are not sufficient, McCandless said. His group argues that the current system leaves too many miles between trails, making some areas inaccessible.

But Schwartz believes it's the right amount, recognizing Congress' protection of such "traditional use" while also protecting the environment. He also likes to experience the preserve in a different way: the swamp walk.

Such walks bring hikers through the wilderness with just their boots and walking sticks. Schwartz is known for his guided swamp walks -- a hobby that originally sparked his interest in protecting the Big Cypress environment.

He points out that NPS acknowledges that ORV use can damage wetlands, destroy plants and spread the seeds of the invasive Brazilian pepper.

"We're not trying to change the enabling legislation," Schwartz said. "We just want protections and common sense."

Controversies ahead

While the fight over off-road vehicles is far from over, other debates are on the horizon.

Burnett Oil Co., for example, wants to perform seismic surveys in the preserve for the potential expansion of oil drilling. Currently, oil companies extract between 500,000 and 800,000 barrels of crude oil from the preserve each year. Thanks to the 1974 compromise, Collier Resources Co. still owns the mineral rights on some remote tracts of land in the preserve.

NPS -- with approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission -- also has just opened the addition lands to hunting for the first time in decades. And then there's the constant swirl of development on the preserve's edges and the creep of a growing panther population into nearby communities.

Ramos also hopes to give some areas of the preserve more protection, launching an effort to evaluate whether some habitat qualifies as wilderness. Such areas would prohibit motorized vehicles, launching yet another debate over the purpose of Big Cypress.

But in his office last month, Ramos exuded only excitement at the prospect of moving on from the haggling over off-road trails. At one point, he jumped up from his seat and hurried to his computer to bring up Google Earth -- and the satellite image of an American Indian ceremonial ground surrounded by nothing but green.

"I think this place is more about the people aspect than we ever gave it credit for before," he said. And then, a few minutes later: "I know that there are places in this preserve where no human has ever stood."


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