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Hunters Fight for Access in Big Cypress

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the early 1970s, hunters were instrumental in preventing South Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp from being drained and transformed into the world’s largest jetport.

The culmination of that successful effort was the creation of the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974, a 582,000-acre area situated just north of Everglades National Park that stretches roughly from Miami in the east to Naples in the west.

Congress, through the preserve’s enabling legislation, directed the National Park Service to continue managing for traditional activities in the area. This included hunting, fishing and swamp buggy use. The area was designated as a preserve instead of a national park for the precise reason of allowing such activities to continue. Anything less would have been a non-starter for hunters and local landowners in the preservation discussion.

Now, some 40 years later, hunters are battling for access to 147,000 acres of the swamp because radical environmentalists believe it should be off limits to both hunting and Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) access.

Traditional Uses

The topography of the Big Cypress makes it inherently difficult to access.

“Hunting in the Big Cypress is hard,” said Jack Moller, an NRA Member, hunter and South Florida native who has been active in preservation issues in the Big Cypress since the 1980s. “It is full of bugs, snakes, gators, panthers, bears, bobcats and spiders. There is lots of water and mud so walking is very difficult, and sneaking up on game is most difficult. In most places during hunting season the water is not deep enough, as it is in the swamps of Louisiana, for a canoe to work. There are thick islands of oak trees, cabbage, pines and palmettos.”

Given the near impossibility of traversing the swampy terrain by foot, the National Park Service says ORVs, such as swamp buggies and airboats, have been used by hunters and others to access remote areas of the Big Cypress Swamp since the 1920s.

Both hunting and ORV-associated recreation and travel remain central uses of the preserve today. There are more than 500 miles of designated ORV trails in Big Cypress used by hunters, anglers, wildlife observers, and a host of other user groups.

“Think of it this way:  If you take the horse out of the mountains there would be no hunting in the mountains. The ORV is the same in the Big Cypress,” said Moller.

Hunting seasons exist for archery, muzzleloading and general firearms, and hunting on the preserve is managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The original preserve is also a state wildlife management area.

The Big Cypress offers some of the best hunting opportunities in the state, with the most common species pursued by hunters being whitetail deer, turkeys and wild hogs.

Getting in and out of the swamp, however, is no easy feat—especially without motorized access.

“There are a number of different major terrain types and each type dictates the design or type of ORV,” said Moller, who owns a hunting camp in the Big Cypress. “Airboats are used in some places, while wheeled swamp buggies are used in other places. Today there are more small ATVs and side-by-side utility vehicles in use, but they do not work when the water is up, at least not well.”

The Addition Lands

In 1988, Congress, with support from hunters, NRA and Safari Club International, authorized a 147,000-acre expansion to the Big Cypress National Preserve, which became known as the Addition Lands. The federal government completed the purchase of the Addition in 1996, bringing the total acreage of the preserve to 729,000 acres.

Much like the original preserve, the Addition Lands have traditionally been used by hunters and accessed by ORVs. However, since its acquisition, the Addition has been closed to hunting and ORV use pending completion of a General Management Plan (GMP) for the area.

The planning effort for the Addition Lands began in 1999, and a Draft GMP was issued 10 years later, in July 2009. Much to hunters’ dismay, included in the draft GMP was the option of designating all or some portion of the Addition as wilderness, a classification that would have closed the area to ORVs, severely limiting public hunting access.

In public comments submitted on the proposed GMP in September 2009, NRA wrote:

“None of the Addition Lands qualify for wilderness designation because they have long been inhabited, visited, and used by man. Man’s footprint has been so indelibly fixed that these lands cannot qualify as wilderness. The Addition Lands do not meet the characteristics of wilderness, which are lands where the imprint of man’s work is “substantially unnoticeable” and where the lands are undeveloped and untrammeled by man. The Addition Lands are the antithesis of wilderness because they have seen historic use through farming, ranching, logging, oil exploration and private occupation. The Addition is crisscrossed by numerous trails and is bisected by an interstate highway.

“If any part of the Addition had the characteristics to qualify as wilderness it would have been recognized long before Congress added the 147,000-acre Addition to the Big Cypress National Preserve. The Addition was included in the Big Cypress National Preserve expressly because the Big Cypress is a national preserve and not a national park. The Big Cypress was designated a national preserve because the intent of Congress was to allow activities, including hunting, that are not generally allowed in a national park. The agreements and understandings as to how these lands were to be managed when the Big Cypress National Preserve was established, and later when it was expanded via the Addition Act, will be breached if wilderness or primitive backcountry management zones are designated.”

After years of study, public comment and debate, a final GMP for the Addition was released by the National Park Service in February 2011. Despite the objections of NRA, SCI, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and local hunters, the final GMP designated approximately 47,000 acres as wilderness, although it did maintain 130 miles of ORV trails elsewhere in the Addition.

The GMP also stated that the agency would work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to develop a Hunting Management Plan to provide hunting access, define hunting seasons, and develop hunting regulations for the Addition.

Legal Challenges Ensue

On Nov. 3, 2011, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Florida Biodiversity Project, South Florida Wildlands Association, and Wilderness Watch, sued the Interior Department, National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overturn the management plan for the Addition.

The plaintiffs contend that widespread motorized traffic will degrade the area’s unique natural resources, create conflict with non-motorized users, and fragment one of the last major wilderness areas in the eastern United States—despite the fact that ORVs were commonly used in the area for generations before the land was acquired by the federal government.

In particular, the lawsuit charges that the government violated its own laws and policies with regard to wilderness designation and failed to take into account the environmental impact of vehicle traffic, including what the lawsuit calls “ORV-assisted hunting,” on the Florida panther, an endangered species whose range includes the Addition Lands.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an organization that bills itself as a watchdog over the National Park Service, also sued to block the GMP in October.

Moller says he believes the end game is to ban ORV use and hunting in the Addition.

“Today, the hikers do not want any noise from a buggy and no ORV trails crossing their hiking trail,” he said. “In the Big Cypress Addition Lands the National Park Service has not managed these folks and allowed them, since 1986, to use the area as if it were their own property. They are now offended that hunting and ORVs are going to be allowed back into the area. The entire area was heavily used before the National Park Service obtained the land. ORV use goes as far back as the 1930s and hunting since before statehood. The land in more recent times was both open to the public for hunting under Florida’s open land laws and as hunt lease property.”

If successful, the lawsuits against the GMP could lead to a wider wilderness designation within the Addition, thus closing even more acreage to ORVs and further inhibiting hunter access. At the very least, the approval of a Hunting Management Plan would also surely be postponed without a GMP, meaning the Addition Lands would remain closed to hunting indefinitely.

It’s important to note that, as of now, hunting remains unchanged in the 582,000 acres of the original preserve.

Hunting Management Plan Underway

Even with the status of the GMP in question due to litigation, the National Park Service, in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has begun drafting a Hunting Management Plan/Environmental Assessment for the Addition.

Two public scoping meetings on the plan were held in late August, and the initial public comment period ended Sept. 16.

There are currently three alternatives on the table for managing hunting in the Addition:

• Manage hunting in the Addition as it is managed in the 582,000 acres of the original preserve.

• No hunting in the Addition.

• Joint hunting management in the Addition between the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Under this alternative, hunting would be reviewed annually by the three agencies and changes would be made as needed.

The National Park Service is currently reviewing the comments submitted during the public scoping process, and a draft plan is expected to be made available to the public in February 2012, with a final decision anticipated in April.

At the scoping meetings in August, anti-hunters voiced opposition to hunting in the Addition, giving reasons ranging from concerns over the survival of panthers, black bears and other endangered species to the need for quiet areas, especially when hunting is permitted in the remainder of the preserve.

Based on that initial feedback, it’s clear that hunters will again have to fight for access to these traditional hunting grounds.

“Since the passage of the Big Cypress Act, we—hunters—have continually had to educate scientists, the public and politicians about what is really going on the Big Cypress and what is really not going on,” said Moller. “We have had to discredit scientists to prevent them from furthering the anti-hunting, anti-use agenda that is spreading across America.”

That agenda now appears bent on subverting the commitments made to hunters and local landowners when Big Cypress was purchased by the government, assuring them that the swamp and its traditional uses would remain protected into the future.

“We need to see what the draft plan will look like when it is released in February next year, and we will be letting our members know about it so they can comment,” said Susan Recce, NRA-ILA Director of Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources. “Rest assured that environmental and anti-hunting groups are going to continue to be at the table. Hunters need to be at the table as well in strong force to protect their ability to access and hunt in the Big Cypress and the Addition Lands.”

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