Sometimes being popular is not so great. One Florida park is finding out that more visitors are not so welcome, at least from an environmental point of view. The National Park Service has opened up parts of Big Cypress National Preserve, only to have a lawsuit filed by conservation groups. The main issue is the use of off-road vehicles on and off trails.
The Preserve is regularly flooded during the wet season, and these seasonal changes in water have determined the area’s ecology. Big Cypress Swamp is a critical part of the Everglades ecosystem, providing freshwater to estuaries along the coast and supporting a wide range of plants and animals. Alligators, bobcats, and bears can be found here, along with egrets, herons, and anhingas. One of the area’s resident species is the Florida panther, a critically endangered species down to about 100 individuals, of which about a third live in Big Cypress. The Preserve is also a traditional home for the Miccosukee and Seminole people. In addition, the region is used for hunting, airboats, and off-road vehicles.
Back in 2000, the Park Service assessed the area after years of off-road recreational use by dune buggies and other vehicles. Sensitive parts of Big Cypress were then closed. The most fragile region is in the northwestern Bear Island Unit, which is characterized by marsh and swamp combined with both treed and prairie habitats. Recently, the same area has been re-opened for off-road use.
Off-road vehicles tear up the ground, disrupting plant growth and waterways. The ruts can be extensive, requiring restoration to reestablish vegetation. It can take years for plants to grow back and for wildlife to resume using these areas. To reduce environmental damage, the Park Service has established rules, such as only driving between 5 am and 10 pm, keeping speed below 15 mph, and staying on trails. However, enforcement of such regulations can be tricky and requires a number of staff. Among the management considerations is the water level, since flooded areas are more challenging for terrestrial wildlife (which are then at increased risk from vehicles and hunters), while low water levels allow airboats to damage soil and vegetation.
Florida has had a population boom and increasing areas are being developed. So suitable wildlife habitat is shrinking. More visitors to parks and preserves places more pressure on the trails and infrastructure, and may mean more off-road users as well. These vehicles come with their own issues, such as loud, inefficient, and polluting engines.
According to the groups filing the lawsuit, the National Park Service’s management policies specify that conservation is paramount over recreational uses in national parks. Certainly, the policies state that conservation and protection are key, and human disturbances will be removed where necessary. Given the tenuous nature of the panther population, along with other big Cypress animals, it seems prudent to keep recreational activities to less sensitive zones of public lands.