Washington, DC — In one of the most contrived moves in recent memory by a land management agency, the National Park Service has reclassified 40,000 acres of Big Cypress National Preserve land that was eligible for wilderness designation to be ineligible – clearing the way for a network of off-road vehicle (ORV) trails. This quickie reclassification of lands violates both law and agency policies, according to a legal complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Back in 1988, Congress added lands to Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve and directed the National Park Service (NPS) to study which of those lands would be suitable for designation as wilderness. Two analyses, one in 2002 and the other in 2009, concluded that the vast majority of the 147,000 acres of the Addition lands was wilderness eligible. In April 20, 2010, Pedro Ramos, Superintendent of the Preserve, signed off on a new “reanalysis” that found only 71,000 acres were eligible. This stripped wilderness eligibility from 40,000 acres – all of which are about to be declared open for building ORV trails.
This wilderness reanalysis was kept under wraps, contrary to agency policy, and was first unveiled on November 23, 2010, when NPS published its Final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for the Big Cypress Addition – thus circumventing required public involvement in wilderness eligibility decisions and pulling a bait-and-switch on the public who commented on the draft plan.
“Under Bush, we never saw this type of blatant maneuvering to reduce park protections that we are seeing now at Big Cypress,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that NPS, adding insult to injury, declared its ORV plan as the “environmentally preferable alternative” to the status quo where ORV are barred. “In the fifty year history of wilderness review in the national park system there have been few, if any, examples of disqualifying eligible lands to accommodate motorized recreation, and certainly nothing of this magnitude.”
The Big Cypress wilderness reanalysis also reversed NPS’s own professional review conducted in July 2006 and refined over a three year period for public release in May 2009. In contrast to that detailed work, the 2010 reanalysis is a total of 12 pages long, cites no data and asserts that human intrusion has ruined the wild character of lands that are now so rugged that they are largely inaccessible.
Today, PEER filed a complaint charging that the Big Cypress wilderness reanalysis violates the Data Quality Act which requires materials distributed or relied upon by federal agencies be accurate, reliable and in compliance with law and policy. Among other flaws, the PEER complaint cites that Park Service officials violated NPS Management Policies governing wilderness eligibility assessments and employed standards wildly inconsistent from those employed by both NPS and other federal land management agencies. PEER is demanding that the reanalysis be withdrawn and the 2009 wilderness assessment is reinstated or that a new, peer-reviewed assessment be performed. NPS has 60 days to respond to the PEER complaint. If NPS rejects the complaint, PEER can appeal to the NPS Director.
“This transparent land management gerrymandering does not pass the laugh test,” added Ruch. “It is no coincidence that the 40,000 acres formerly suitable for wilderness are now suitable only for ORV trails.”