Bush administration favors ORV curbs at Big Cypress Preserve

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President Bush backs tough curbs on off-road vehicles in Big Cypress

By David Fleshler, South Florida Sun Sentinel

March 19 2002

The Bush administration has sided with environmental groups in the fight over off-road vehicles at Big Cypress National Preserve, filing a forceful legal brief in favor of restrictions imposed under President Clinton.

The decision heartened environmentalists, who had feared the new administration would bow to the wishes of the conservative hunting groups that opposed the restrictions.

It's terrific news," said Mary Munson, South Florida representative of the National Parks Conservation Association. "For a while, we weren't sure the new administration was going to stand behind the plan."

But the hunters' groups that filed suit in federal court to overturn the restrictions are continuing the legal fight, saying the new rules have ruined their way of life.

"It's been virtually a ghost town in many areas of the preserve," said Barbara Jean Powell, spokeswoman for the Everglades Coordinating Council, which represents several hunting clubs. "The entire social fabric we have enjoyed for so many years has been destroyed by the ORV plan."

The use of motorized vehicles in wilderness areas has emerged as one of the most contentious environmental issues in years. There have been fights over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, all-terrain vehicles in western deserts and personal watercraft along the coasts.

When Bush won the presidency, environmentalists were concerned that he would open up federal lands to motorized vehicles, whose owners had resented restrictions put in under Clinton. This happened at Yellowstone, where the Bush administration lifted a ban on snowmobiles, despite objections that they bring noise and pollution to the park.

Many people expected a similar turn-around at Big Cypress. The preserve's managers infuriated hunters and other off-road vehicle users in 2000, when they were restricted to trails and designated access points to prevent the heavy vehicles from damaging the preserve. Hunters' groups and individuals filed suit.

They say the off-road vehicle plan denies them the access that was guaranteed in the legislation creating the preserve, particularly for elderly people who can't walk through swamps. They say it is impossible to bring hunting equipment to remote areas without them, particularly because they need to be able to carry their killed deer or hog out. And they think the government and the environmental groups have exaggerated the effect of off-road vehicles, noting that Florida panthers have co-existed with them for decades.

After Bush won the election, the new leaders of the Department of the Interior initiated settlement talks, giving the hunters hope that the administration was sympathetic to their cause. As their attorney, the hunters retained Bill Horn, a former Reagan administration official who represented the snowmobile industry in the Yellowstone case. But the Big Cypress talks failed, and last week the government filed its response to the hunters' lawsuit.

In a 43-page brief filed late last week, attorneys for the Department of the Interior say that the rules were necessary to reverse damage to the preserve, that the department followed proper procedures in imposing them and that the rules won't prevent anyone from hunting, fishing or frogging.

"The gaps in plaintiffs' logic can be most clearly seen in their arguments regarding frogging," the brief states. "Plaintiffs argue that because the ORV plan requires ORVs to be turned off from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and because people catch frogs at night, therefore the ORV plan ends frogging. They never explain, however, why people cannot frog before 10 p.m.; why they cannot frog without ORVs; why they cannot frog from their ORVs until 10 p.m., and then turn the engines off and continue to frog from their campsites."

And contrary to the hunters' arguments, the vehicles have worn about 23,000 miles of trails into the preserve, the brief states.

"The record before the court demonstrates that unrestricted ORV use has caused significant environmental damage over the years," the brief states. "Allowing ORV users to return to the previous regime of unrestricted dispersed use while the National Park Service prepares additional environmental documentation will result in harm to the natural resources of the preserve."

Several environmental groups have filed briefs in favor of the restrictions, including Florida Biodiversity Project, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club.

The hunting groups have requested oral arguments, but that's up to the judge in Fort Myers. A decision will be based on the written briefs and possibly oral arguments.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are savoring the support from the administration.

"It's refreshing that the government is actually putting up a solid defense," said Amy Atwood, an attorney for the environmental groups. "There was some question as to whether they would defend the ORV plan."

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4535.
 

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