Environmentalists say the park service shut out the public and violated its own regulations in the decision-making process
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Wrangling continues over future management of the 147,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, where the National Park Service recently decided to open 40,000 acres for motorized use.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, claims the park service broke its own policies with the decision by failing to involve the public in the decision-making process.
The group has filed an appeal and a notice of intent to sue over the decision.
“Unless NPS Director Jon Jarvis reverses the actions of his subordinates in response to an administrative appeal filed by PEER, management of this large south Florida park unit will soon be ensnarled in litigation,” PEER said in a press release.
The park service says it has a mandate to meet demand from multiple user groups, and says it did enable public comment by hosting a series of four meetings around the state. Additional reviews of the area showed more signs of human use in the section of the preserve north of I-70, according to a June 9 letter from the park service to PEER.
The plan for motorized use include a 25-fold expansion on non-wilderness corridors surrounding every trail, canal and road in the preserve. Increasing the buffer from .01 miles to .25 miles on both sides of every trail will accommodate large vehicles going off-trail and gouging large ruts through the swampy Big Cypress Preserve, according to the group.
Documents obtained by PEER also suggest that the park service used unprecedented criteria that may violate at least the spirit — if not the letter — of the Wilderness Act.
“In Big Cypress, Park Service officials crudely gamed the process to reach a pre-determined result,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Beyond the future of the Big Cypress National Preserve, this is about whether there is any integrity in Park Service decision-making,” Ruch added. “This appeal is the last chance Director Jarvis has to do the right thing before we see him in court.”
In May 2009, the park service issued a draft plan for the new addition to the preserve, announcing that more than 111,000 acres of lands added tin 1988 were eligible as wilderness. Less than a year later, the agency officials decided that 40,000 of those wilderness acres should instead be open to motorized recreation, which is prohibited by law in designated wilderness.
More documents obtained by PEER show that, to make the changes, preserve superintendent Pedro Ramos and regional park service director David Vela first asked Director Jarvis to waive national Management Policies requiring that wilderness eligible lands be managed so as not to forfeit future designation as wilderness. Jarvis refused to grant the waiver, so Ramos and Vela did a very quick reassessment of the wilderness character of the target lands.
In late December 2010, PEER filed a complaint against the reassessment under the Data Quality Act, which requires agency decision documents to be accurate, reliable and consistent. In a June 9 letter, Regional Director Vela rejected the PEER complaint, now under review by the park service chief.