Off-Road Vehicles Face a Florida Preserve Blowout

     (CN) - A federal judge closed parts of a Florida national preserve to off-road vehicles, calling the decision to reopen some trails "arbitrary and capricious."
     The National Park Service designated Big Cypress as a national preserve in 1974, granting protection to more than 574,000 acres of cypress swamps, pinelands, wet prairies and marshes to the north and west of the everglades in southwest Florida.
     Operation of off-road vehicles in the preserve was restricted and controlled through special regulations from the very beginning. The Park Service added 147,000 acres to the preserve in 1988, but this territory was never open to off-road vehicles, either.
     Environmental groups claimed that off-road vehicle use would degrade the preserve's highly sensitive soft soils and vegetation, severely and irreparably damaging the ecosystem.
     Hunters and off-road enthusiasts, on the other hand, argued they needed routes of access to campgrounds, private lands and oil-production pads.
     Facing claims that it failed to control off-road vehicle use in the preserve, the federal government agreed in 1995 to devise an off-road-vehicle management plan and a supplemental environmental impact statement.
     In 2000, the Park Service adopted a management plan that favored resource protection, eliminated dispersed off-road-vehicle use, and limited primary trails for such vehicles to no more than 400 miles.
     The plan also restricted off-road-vehicle access in areas of the preserve that sheltered most of the Florida panthers.
     The 2000 plan survived legal challenges, but off-road enthusiasts continued to press for greater access.
     In February 2007, the Park Service dedicated about 24 miles of trail to off-road vehicles, converting 1.58 miles of primary trail to secondary trail and reopening 15.21 miles of primary trails and 7.49 miles of secondary trails.
     But the Sierra Club, the Humane Society and other environmental groups said this decision violated the 1995 settlement. They said the additional trail use harmed soils and vegetation, and disturbed the endangered Florida panther.
     Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the service should have assessed the environmental impact of reopening trails before taking action, according to the complaint.
     U.S. District Judge John Steele granted summary judgment to off-road opponents in July, rejecting claims that the environmental analysis conducted for the 2000 management plan still sufficed.
     Though opponents could not point to sufficient environmental damage to require supplemental environmental analysis, the agency's decision constituted "substantial changes" that did require a new environmental assessment, according to the 80-page ruling.
     Reopening the trails also appears like a bad idea in light of new evidence of rising panther-human incidents and decreasing panther habitat, but the government never considered these issues.
     But the government's main problem is its lack of a rational basis to reopen the trails, Steele said.
     What's more, the agency performed studies only after reopening the trails, in violation of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act.
     It would neither burden the government nor affect trails to set aside the 2007 trail designation, according to the court.
     The Park Service was ordered to close the reopened trails by July 24, but it had already closed all units to off-road vehicle use for 60 days, starting June 4.