Big Cypress Off-Roaders Threatening Endangered Florida Panther, Lawsuit Claims

For a certain brand of South Florida outdoorsy-type, nothing beats blasting through the great outdoors on a giant off-road vehicle - wind wiping your hair, bug guts painting the windscreen, huge tires below mulching up the turf.

But questions about where backwoods cruising should be allowed in Big Cypress National Preserve have led to a recent federal lawsuit. Environmental groups -- led by the Center for Biological Diversity -- say the National Parks Service has failed to police where riders wreck their off-road havoc.

The lack of oversight has possibly harmed the Florida panther, an endangered critter that could do without any more threats to it's livelihood.

First, the background: before the '90s, off-roaders pretty much had free range of the preserve, with an estimated 23,000 miles of trails scratching haphazardly through the wilderness. In 1995, environmental groups sued to the National Parks Service over the issue, asking the government to rein in off-roading lest it tear up the natural habitat.

The suit was settled that year, and in 2000 the Parks Service issues the Big Cypress ORV [Off Road Vehicle] Management Plan. "ORV use can occur only to the extent that it does not significantly adversely affect the preserve and its natural and cultural resources," the document decreed. In the fine-print, the plan shuffled possible ORV routes into "primary" and "secondary" categories; the former were meant to be the main playgrounds for off-roaders, signed and stamped by the Parks Service. Secondary trails "would be identified to provide access to private property or specific destinations such as campsites" - I.e. access veins from A to B.

Since then, ORV users and environmentalists have fired off numerous legal actions about what the ORV plan actually means. Sparking the most recent legislation: the government's decision to open up 147 miles of secondary trail in two sections of Big Cypress -- the Turner River and Corn Dance areas. In the latest lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity and other plaintiffs claim the move is a no-go because it violates the 2000 plan by allow secondary lanes to cut through the bush without specific destinations. The results put wildlife in the path of vrooming big wheels - including the Florida panther.

"In promulgating these decisions," the complaint states, "NPS did not conduct any agency review under governing federal environmental statutes and executives orders, not did NPS consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning the adverse effects that these vast secondary ORV trail systems would have on the highly imperiled Florida panther or other federally protected species."

Seeing how the panther population has been having a record-setting hard time lately, with more and more of the critters turning up dead. In the face of those stats, any possible incursion is serious business. We put in two calls to a representative from Big Cypress about the charges in the suit, but didn't hear back.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson