Enviros Lose Fight Over Big Cypress Preserve

      (CN) —The National Park Service’s plan to reduce the protected wilderness area and allow more than 130 miles of off-road vehicle trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve met with approval from the 11th Circuit.
     The Big Cypress National Preserve stretches from Miami to Naples in Florida. In 1988, the Park Service expanded it by about 112,000 acres to encompass over 574,000 acres.
     The added lands contained approximately 244 miles of off-road vehicle trails that were open to the public before the Park Service acquired them. These trails were closed from 1996 until the NPS approved more than 130 miles as sustainable ORV trails in 2011.
     The federal government’s plan originally designated approximately 93,000 acres of the added lands as primitive backcountry where ORV access was to be prohibited, but later reduced this figure to 71,000 acres after adding a buffer zone around the trails because of the “presence of human disturbance,” according to the Park Service.
     Six environmental groups challenged this reduction in the lands determined eligible for wilderness protection and filed lawsuits in 2011.
     “The Addition constitutes one of the few remaining sizeable and contiguous tracts of relatively pristine and significantly undisturbed landscape in the eastern United States, and particularly in Florida, available for peaceful enjoyment and solitude by visitors,” the environmental groups claimed in one of their complaints.
     Plaintiffs included the National Parks Conservation Association and John Adornato III, one of its directors; the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; the Florida Biodiversity Project; the Sierra Club; the South Florida Wildlands Association; Wilderness Watch; and Brian Scherf, a hiker and member of the Florida Biodiversity Project.
     They claimed, “NPS has found that once ORV use displaces soils, there are no natural mechanisms capable of restoring the natural topography. As a result, the damage can be permanent, effectively altering hydrology and promoting unnatural vegetation succession.”
     Plaintiffs also asserted NPS’s plan threatens the habitat of the Florida panther and the eastern indigo snake.
     But a federal judge ruled in favor of the government in 2014, and the 11th Circuit affirmed Thursday.
     “The NPS did not require that an area be pristine and untouched by humans to be found wilderness-eligible. The record shows that the NPS required the area to be free of any substantially noticeable human imprint, which is what is required under the Wilderness Act,” U.S. District Judge William Moore said, sitting by designation from the Southern District of Georgia.
     Giving deference to the Park Service’s expertise, Moore said the finding that a one-half mile buffer around ORV trails “contains a substantially noticeable human imprint is the result of reasoned decision-making, and not arbitrary and capricious.”
     The court also said NPS showed that the Florida panther is likely to seasonally avoid this habitat due to other causes such as prey migration, so the loss of the 16,808 acres is unlikely to affect it.
     Similarly, off-road vehicle use “could alter eastern indigo snake behavior,” but “any disruption would be negligible,” the 21-page opinion said.
     U.S. Circuit Judges Charles Wilson and Julie Carnes joined in Moore’s opinion.

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