Swamp Wars

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

"This is the worst case of overuse in the National Park system," he adds.

The Florida Biodiversity Project comprises only six people, not all of whom live in Florida. In the past they've championed "uncharismatic species, things other groups don't want to get involved with," Scherf says, mentioning the Big Cypress fox squirrel and Johnson sea grass. In the early '90s they were poking around the state's idea to put in Big Cypress access points along Alligator Alley -- "prime panther territory," Scherf notes -- when someone suggested they take a look at the preserve's ORV trails. They didn't like what they saw, and couldn't believe there was no comprehensive ORV management plan in place after all these years. Backed by federal money, they battled the National Park Service in court until both sides reached a settlement agreement in 1995. The park service would have to come up with a plan to control ORVs or find itself back in court.

In 1999 they did formulate a plan, but it was a resounding flop. "It was very general, there was no firm foundation in science, and nobody liked it, whatever your point of view," says Franklin Adams, a charter boat captain in Everglades City and a member of the Tallahassee-based Florida Wildlife Federation, a pro-ORV group.

Pearl Waggoner, better known as Ms. Pearl, has been hunting in Big Cypress just shy of forever
Pearl Waggoner, better known as Ms. Pearl, has been hunting in Big Cypress just shy of forever
New kid on the block Superintendent John Donahue has been on the job less than a year.
New kid on the block Superintendent John Donahue has been on the job less than a year.

Park service officials revised their plans and put out the final draft ORV-management document in August 2000. Most everybody, excepting park service officials, thinks it's a flop.

The final management plan and environmental-impact statement is 600 pages long. It requires ORVs to venture into Big Cypress from established points only, stay on designated trails, stay out of sensitive areas like wet prairies and Cape Sable seaside sparrow habitat, not travel between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and observe seasonal closures of the entire preserve.

But the most contentious issue is the trails.

According to an aerial study by the University of Georgia, more than 20,000 miles of trails wind through Big Cypress. (ORV users scoff at that figure, noting that the survey counts every set of buggy tracks as a "trail" so that, even if a driver deviated from an established path by a few feet, he's cutting a separate, distinct trail that adds to the total mileage of the preserve.) Under the new plan the official mileage count will be reduced to about 400.

Buggy jockeys say that's not enough; environmentalists say it's still too much. Scherf believes the only trails that should be allowed in Big Cypress are those that allow access to private in-holdings. "[The park service] is still trying to kowtow to the off-road vehicle users," Scherf states. "We want to see a more protective plan. The bottom line is, the resources have to come first before recreational access."

Ron Hofstetter, a wetland ecologist at the University of Miami who has been taking students to Big Cypress for 30 years, sent a letter to the park service urging them to curtail buggy use until more research is done. "We are talking about at least decades [for ruts to fill in], rather than days, weeks, months, or years," says Hofstetter. "We're possibly even talking numbers of half centuries."

The problem, says Big Cypress botanist Jim Burch, is that in delicate regions like wet prairies, buggies can only make one or two passes before cutting through the soil and turning the tracks into deep ruts. Once that happens, buggy drivers detour around the ruts, which tends to fan out the impact. "Those are areas that tend to get used a lot," says Burch. "There are no trees to block your path so people tend to go outside the trail. Certainly it breaks things up and bends them over, particularly in the heavily used areas. Nothing grows there after a while."The last time Ms. Pearl came out to Bear Island, she found an alligator in her cook tent. "I had been out there just at daylight washing dishes right there," she says, pointing to the pond 15 feet away from her campsite. "I wasn't even thinking about that gator, and in a little while I walked back in here and I looked, and he was right in here at that table, that big old huge gator."

Her son's girlfriend was asleep in a nearby tent, so Ms. Pearl yelled, as much out of fright as warning, probably. "I said, "Oh my God, that gator is right asleep at the cook tent!'"

Ms. Pearl is 73 years old, and her full name is Pearl Waggoner, but everyone calls her Ms. Pearl. She lives in Naples, and she's been coming to the woods just shy of forever. But she'd never had an alligator in her cook tent before. She'd heard that loud noises scare away bears and figured the same tactic might work for alligators, so she made a ruckus and the gator took off.

"It whirled around and boy, he liked to knock all the water out of that pond going in there," she says.

She's here in bow season despite the fact that she doesn't bow hunt. Ms. Pearl prefers to go after wild turkeys with a shotgun later in the fall. She's here despite the fact that it's 90 degrees­plus in the shade and there's precious little breeze under the blue tarp that shields her cook tent.

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