South Florida Environmental Groups Join Lawsuit Against National Park Service

Several environmental groups, led by the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a lawsuit last week against the National Park Service, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over plans to open up the Big Cypress Addition Lands to a few hundred permitted off-road vehicles.

The Addition Lands consist of 146,000 acres that make up Broward's oft-ignored western border, bisected by I-75. A debate about how much hunting to allow there is still ongoing, with the Park Service expected to release a draft plan in early 2012.

The South Florida Wildlands Association, a local group led by environmentalist Matt Schwartz, is another plaintiff on the suit. Schwartz says the litigation might be a sign of what's to come for the proposed hunting rules, as well.

"There is a definite possibility" of litigation if the Park Service comes back with a pro-hunting plan, he says. For now, though, the groups are focused on the off-road vehicle policy, which is a little further along.

These management plans are just now being crafted for the Addition Lands, since they were belatedly added to the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1996 after a land-swap deal with the Collier family of local land barons.

The complaint in the lawsuit (see below) is more than 40 pages long, and Schwartz says it's supported by data provided by the Park Service's own scientists. In fact, part of the complaint says that the Park Service is violating its own management policies and asks for injunctive relief to set them in order.

"There was no need for original research in the complaint," he says. "We're on the same page with their scientists." But the Park Service, under pressure to cater to numerous interest groups in favor of "diverse uses," doesn't always do exactly what its scientists recommend.

Schwartz, who has been leading treks through the Addition Lands since their acquisition in 1996, helped cull the necessary data for the complaint.

"It's an extremely interesting piece of land that needs very little to no restoration," he says.

The government's plan would have only around 650 off-road vehicles permitted to ride around the swamps and prairies -- a far cry from the thousands of vehicles registered in Broward County alone. Whether that small number of users is enough to merit resistance to this lawsuit -- and whether a similar act will play out regarding hunting laws -- will be decided sooner or later in court.
Big Cypress Addition Lands Lawsuit 11-11

Stefan Kamph is a New Times staff writer.
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Stefan Kamph
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