Environmentalists Lose Lawsuit Over Buggies, Panthers, and Big Cypress Plan

Environmentalists Lose Lawsuit Over Buggies, Panthers, and Big Cypress Plan
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

For one subset of the Florida cracker, hunting, fishing, and frogging is a way of life. And intrinsic to their subculture, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, is the use of swamp buggies. So when the National Park Service banned their use in parts of the Big Cypress Preserve, it set off a decades-long battle between sportsmen who believe that public land is for recreation and environmentalists who think it's for preservation.

In 1988, the Park Service acquired an additional 147,000 acres around the original preserve. Some of it contained residential areas, and those people had built trails around their homes for off-road vehicle use. But when the government took over, it barred use of the trails.

But then officials needed a plan to deal with the so-called Addition Lands. So the Park Service drafted one in 2000 and decided that rural Floridians and sportsmen could take their swamp buggies through almost 50,000 aces of the new land -- about one-third.

See also: Florida Panther's Return Spells Doom for Gladesmen

To the Gladesmen who loved the land, it wasn't nearly enough. And to environmentalists, it was way too much. The issue has been debated since about 1995, not to mention it's been the subject of several lawsuits.

The most recent one was in 2011. That's when the NPS got locked into a lawsuit with environmentalists, including main plaintiff John Adornato, regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association in Hollywood. Groups such as the Sierra Club also piled on.

These plaintiffs made many claims, but he most important said that, one, the Park Service did a survey in 2006 that found 110,000 acres of the Addition Lands were eligible for "wilderness" status, which would mean no one could ride vehicles there. It then amended its own study to appease the sportsmen. And two, that the plan further endangered the Florida Panther, which lives there.

On Sunday, the Sun Sentinel ran a story about how the management of Big Cypress "has announced plans to see which parts of this habitat for panthers, bears, and dozens of protected species could qualify for designation as federal wilderness." The story failed to mention that a long, tedious lawsuit about that very issue had just wrapped up in federal court three days prior.

A judge in Fort Myers didn't rule in favor of the environmentalists on even one of their eight counts, according to court documents. Sporting blogs are already reporting on news, saying that trails will be operating "sooner rather than later" and that hunting in the Addition Lands is on the horizon.

"This decision is a gigantic big deal that has been needed since 1974 to guarantee Big Cypress is operated as Congress intended it to be, which is like a preserve and not a park where everything is basically off-limits to people except boardwalks," says Frank Denninger, who advocates on behalf of Gladesmen. "The Big C is meant to be used hard, but not too hard."

Send your story tips to the author, Allie Conti.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti




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