Swamp Wars

Beset by feds and environmentalists, the good ol' boys of Big Cypress National Preserve circle the buggies

A young deer darts across the swale 20 yards ahead of the buggy. Further down the trail a curlew takes flight from the brush. Darst says the old-timers call these birds "Chokoloskee chickens," a reference to the island town south of Everglades City. "Great with biscuits and gravy, though it's illegal to hit them now. But everything is either illegal, immoral, or fattening." As the buggy passes under an overhang of thick palmettos Darst grabs a rusty machete he keeps within reach on top of the buggy's hood near the gun rack and neatly lops off the lowest frond. Helps keep the trail clear. Then he drives awhile in silence.

"It ain't right what's being done here," he finally says.No one -- not environmentalists, buggy drivers, or park personnel -- disputes the fact that ORVs have left their mark on Big Cypress. The evidence is hard to miss. From the seat of a buggy, there's always a trail stretching out in front and behind you. Peripherally there are signs of tracks and ruts, but only because the nearby vegetation is matted down.

From the front seat of a Bell Ranger III helicopter at an altitude of 1000 feet, the picture is very different. The buggy tracks become crazy, swirling lines going everywhere and nowhere at once. Sections of the preserve look like a two-year-old's scribbling on a clean sheet of paper.

Bill Evans is the National Park Service employee in the chopper's pilot seat. To make a point, the 52-year-old flier drops the Ranger to six feet off the ground in a marl prairie, then creeps forward along a single buggy trail. No other trails are visible. When he pulls up on the stick, the chopper rises, and it's quickly apparent this lonesome prairie three miles from any road is crisscrossed with ORV tracks.

"At buggy level you don't see the big picture," says Sandra Snell-Dobert through the helicopter's radio headset. Snell-Dobert is the preserve's public information officer. She's riding in the back, putting the National Park Service spin on the impact of ORVs. "All you can see is the rut ahead of you."

It's true, and a useful metaphor besides: What Big Cypress should be, whether or not off-road vehicles are damaging it, depends to a large extent on your vantage point.

When created by an act of Congress in 1974, Big Cypress was the nation's first "preserve." By that time the National Park system was already 100 years old, born with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. But there had never been anything like Big Cypress, which by the early '70s was already considered Florida's last frontier.

Back then it was much more of a free-for-all -- a patchwork of state and private holdings, logging and cattle interests -- rich with the possibilities of oil-and-gas exploration. Hunters squatted on public land, sometimes building elaborate camps to which they had no legal claim. Loggers had already cut down most of the old-growth cypress trees for use as pickle barrels, coffins, and siding. Perhaps most ominously, developers had their eyes on big chunks of the area. The Everglades Jet Port, built in 1968, along with development on Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley all pointed to the notion that Big Cypress Swamp was on its way to becoming Big Cypress Estates, a gated community.

Realizing this vast natural treasure might be lost to all, an unlikely alliance of sportsmen, environmentalists, private landowners, and the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian tribes got together and forged what has since been called the Great Compromise. Hunters could still hunt and run ORVs, private landowners could stay, oil-and-gas companies could drill, and the tribes could keep using the land for their cultural and religious purposes.

Before Big Cypress such a compromise was unknown in the National Park system; protection of the resource took priority over other interests. But there were just too many interests already in Big Cypress. So the federal government concocted the notion of the national preserve, a designation that recognizes cultural, economic, recreational, and natural value of an area. Big Cypress was the first, created by Congress just a few hours before Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. Today there are 16 designated national preserves.

One of the park service's mandates was to create a plan to regulate ORVs and minimize their impact on Big Cypress, a task preserve managers never got around to until 1991, when they issued their first general management plan. That document had ORV guidelines but nothing specific.

So hunters simply continued what they'd been doing since the first swamp buggies were invented: motoring about the swamp pretty much as they pleased. Not that the park service was completely hands-off. They banned tracked vehicles in the '80s, closed down particularly sensitive lands to ORV use, established the designated trail system on Bear Island, and required ORVs to be registered and meet criteria for tire size, mufflers, lights, and other items to get an operating permit.

But for one group of environmentalists, the park service hadn't gone nearly far enough.

In 1994 the Florida Biodiversity Project, based in Fort Lauderdale, sued the National Park Service over its lack of an ORV management plan for Big Cypress. "This is one of the most fragile, sensitive areas in the country," says the group's president, Brian Scherf. "Not only do you have the soft wetland soils, but you also have numerous endangered species.

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