In late October, we saw a post on the Big Cypress National Preserve Facebook page regards opening up public comment on their new Backcountry Access Plan.
It is a 180 page document that outlines their intent to modify current access to the preserve. The public has the opportunity to comment on it through December 15, 2020.
This is our analysis and commentary on the plan and its proposals.
In the 1970s, impetus to establish Big Cypress National Preserve came from both conservation and recreational groups fighting plans for a new international airport.
The Miami-Dade Port Authority planned to build it along US 41 west of the Miccosukee Reservation. At the time, had it been built, it would have been the largest airport in the world.
Rather than acquire and add the land to Everglades National Park, thought was given to creating a new type of public land, one that embraced traditional uses such as hunting.
Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974 as one of the two first National Preserves in America, the other being Big Thicket in Texas.
New management plans for public lands are generally developed once a decade. The prompt for this new plan for Big Cypress is in updating plans were adopted in 2000 and 2010.
Those plans govern recreational ORV use and overall management of the preserve.
According to the draft Backcountry Access Plan, there are presently 278 miles of ORV trails across Big Cypress National Preserve open to permitted users.
Five alternatives to expanding public access to the preserve are presented in this new management plan.
Alternative 1 would leave things as is. Dispersed free backcountry camping would remain, as would the existing ORV trails.
Alternative 2 would open an additional 33 miles of hard-packed ORV trails and force the Florida Trail to move in places “to separate ORV and non-ORV users.” This alternative would open 46 new campsites throughout the preserve. Reservations would be required for backcountry camping, and dispersed camping would no longer be allowed.
Alternative 3 would add 88 miles of ORV trails and, as above, force realignment of the FNST and do away with dispersed / non-reserved camping.
Alternative 4 “would expand the hiking trail system by 51 miles.” It’s unclear if this is directly tied to the FNST or would mean new stand-alone trail systems. This alternative would also open 159 more miles of ORV trails. 136 new backcountry destinations would be opened. The FNST would be realigned, but no reservations would be required for camping, and disbursed camping would continue.
Alternative 5, as above, expands the hiking trail system by 51 miles and would open 220 additional miles of ORV trails, or nearly 500 miles of ORV access total. 203 new backcountry destinations would be opened. The FNST would still be moved, but disbursed / free camping would continue.
The Everglades Coordinating Council, a coalition of sportsman’s groups, supports Alternative 5.
A list of organizations that provided input incorporated into the draft plan included the Florida Trail Association, but we have not seen specifics of that input.
Alternative 5 and ORVs
The NPS has selected Alternative 5 as their preferred alternative, “because it provides the greatest amount of public access to the Preserve while providing for protection of cultural and natural resources.”
Expanding public access via Alternative 5 hinges on a heavy expansion of backcountry ORV use, nearly doubling what is allowed right now.
If, like John and I, you’ve walked across the marl prairies of Big Cypress, you know what just footsteps do to this habitat.
By comparison, ORV use is considered a “high impact recreational activity” to natural habitats.
When Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, many miles of existing swamp buggy trails crisscrossed the terrain. These were largely used to access private residences and hunt camps.
When closure of ORV trails deemed non-essential occurred, it created animosity between the prior users and the NPS. Some of that erupted into lawsuits.
As a result, a separate ORV Management Plan was developed for the preserve. According to the most recent version (2000) of this plan, which can be reviewed on the Laws & Policies page of the park website, ORV users had “unlimited access from approximately 70 informal locations.”
In 2007, outside the scope of their “No Action” alternative taken with the above plan, NPS reopened nearly 45 miles of ORV trails. They were sued over it by environmental groups, having not properly reviewed environmental impacts.
Three years later, NPS reopened 147 miles of ORV trails in a different part of the preserve, and again, were sued to close them back down.
These were not trails for tribal use, or for access to inholdings (access to both are always granted), but for recreational use.
As the ORV Management Plan states in a response to a public comment, “Senate and House reports on the bill establishing Big Cypress National Preserve specifically stated that the bill did not prohibit the use of ORVs along designated roads and trails.”
That response was an indirect way of answering the comment “At least one alternative must consider complete elimination of ORVs from the preserve.” The simple answer is no.
ORV trails existed when the Preserve was created, and were included in the designation that makes a National Preserve differ from a National Park.
Taken from that perspective, there will always be ORV use in Big Cypress. The question is, how much ORV access is enough?
Wilderness in Florida
The National Park Service draws a distinction between “backcountry” and “wilderness.”
Backcountry implies a lack of paved roads and permanent structures, and access only by trail.
By comparison, wilderness is “to be managed at the highest possible standards inherent by U.S. conservation laws.”
At this moment, not a single acre in Big Cypress National Preserve carries a wilderness designation, which seems almost unbelievable on the face of it.
I’ve personally experienced many locations within the preserve that have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” per the NPS definition of wilderness.
By comparison, our National Forests in Florida have a handful of designated wilderness areas that have far less solitude, hemmed in as they are by forest roads and overflown by military aircraft.
Yet the wilderness designation in our National Forests, such as the one at Juniper Prairie Wilderness, affords those areas special protections.
Those protections would be in place at Big Cypress National Preserve today, had anyone ever championed them as public access has been championed.
A complaint filed a decade ago by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) points out that Big Cypress National Preserve was mandated in 1988 to study its Addition Lands for wilderness designation.
In 2002, the preserve determined that 120,000 acres of the 147,000 acres of Addition Lands were of a quality to consider wilderness designation.
By May 2009, that number had dropped to 111,000 acres, still a significant amount of wilderness for the state of Florida.
A year later, the preserve managers dropped that number to 71,000 acres. The PEER complaint alleges the change was “for the sole purpose of accommodating more routes for off-road vehicles.”
By 2010, the Addition Lands Final General Management Plan authorized ORV access and riding opportunities in those lands that had originally been part of the wilderness plan.
As of 2010, park staff proposed designating 47,067 acres of wilderness in the Mullet Slough area.
Today, 32 years after the original mandate for establishing wilderness designation on a portion of Big Cypress National Preserve, not an acre has been set aside as wilderness.
The draft Backcountry Access Plan states “None of the alternatives calls for siting ORV trails in areas eligible or proposed for designation. As a result, the siting of new ORV trails would have no direct impacts to wilderness character.”
In fact, the map of ORV access under Alternative 5 overlays trails across those original 120,000 acres of wilderness proposed in 2002.
But now only 47,067 acres of the preserve are considered wilderness-worthy. The question is, how and why did that wilderness shrink?
And why, after three decades of studies, isn’t any of Big Cypress set aside as wilderness?
Backcountry vs. Access
What we see at stake in this Backcountry Access Plan is the disconnect between the words “backcountry” and “access.”
Consider what you think of as backcountry in Florida. The reality is, there is very little public land that you can’t reach by road.
By nature of its being a massive swamp, the tip of the Florida peninsula is one of the largest swaths remaining.
Smaller chunks are protected along the Florida-Georgia border at the Pinhook Swamp, in the Apalachicola National Forest, and along the Gulf Coast north of Crystal River.
From a hiker’s standpoint, being at Thirteen Mile Camp or Oak Hill along the Florida Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve is about as far from civilization in Florida as you can walk.
The skies are starry. The quiet is unlike anywhere else in this state. Only the contrail of an airplane reminds you that you’re not all that far, as the jet flies, from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Naples.
Paddlers will find a similar experience in the Ten Thousand Islands and along the Big Bend.
The concept of backcountry, at least in the less populated regions of the United States west of the Mississippi River, is “out there.”
It means getting away from the crowd and enjoying solitude. Under your own power.
It doesn’t mean encouraging more access.
In a state where massive cattle ranches and pine plantations are being eyed as future cities, where every possible piece of undeveloped land has a plan being developed, shouldn’t we draw the curtains around our last wild spaces?
Should we really encourage the National Park Service to open up “the greatest amount of public access to the Preserve?”
Our Opinion, and Yours
My gut feeling is no.
If you’ve personally hiked, biked, ridden a swamp buggy, or even driven across Big Cypress along the Tamiami Trail or Alligator Alley, you’re aware of what a unique, and wet, tropical environment it protects.
According to the National Park Service, “The purpose of the preserve is to assure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the natural, scenic, hydrologic, floral and fauna, and recreational values of the Big Cypress watershed in the state of Florida and to provide for the enhancement and public enjoyment thereof.”
In my eyes, Alternative 5 flies in the face of preservation and conservation by putting the emphasis on the last five words of the purpose statement for Big Cypress National Preserve. Instead of “preservation, conservation, and protection.”
Now that I’ve looked into why Big Cypress has no designated wilderness, I feel that Alternative 1 – the “Do Nothing” option – is the way to go for now.
Frankly, I find it irresponsible for NPS to choose Alternative 5 as their preferred solution before putting safeguards in place to protect the landscape they are pledged to preserve.
Revisit the idea of a Backcountry Access Plan after wilderness designation is in place where it’s been previously proposed.
Do not implement additional access points, backcountry campsites or “destinations,” or more trails before those protections are in place.
But that’s my opinion. You’re entitled to your own.
Dig through the Draft Backcountry Access Plan to come to your own conclusions. You can find a copy on the Big Cypress National Preserve website.
Florida Trail Impact
Or download this copy provided to us by concerned Florida Trail Association trail maintainers who care for the Florida Trail in the Addition Lands.
They’ve combed through the draft plan and are troubled about the impact of Alternative 5 on the trail. They’ve highlighted items in the document that illustrate their concerns.
They are concerned that it would lead to extensive trail reroutes and/or removing National Scenic Trail status from the Florida Trail since OHVs would be permitted to use Nobles Rd.
December 15, 2020 is the final day for public comments to the National Park Service.
Written comments may be submitted to:
Big Cypress National Preserve
c/o Superintendent Tom Forsyth
33100 Tamiami Trail E
Ochopee, FL 34141