FL Big Cypress Preserve access battle to go to court

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Published Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Swamp buggyists decide to sue

BY CURTIS MORGAN, Miami Herald
cmorgan@herald.com

A bitter swamp buggy battle in the Big Cypress National Preserve is bound for federal court.

A group of hunters and others who sued the preserve last year have ended negotiations with the National Park Service over a plan that sharply restricts their freedom to roam in the sprawling wilderness of the Southwest Florida refuge.

Environmentalists, who complain buggies ravage the landscape and disrupt wildlife, hailed the collapse of the settlement talks. They interpreted it as a surprise sign of support from U.S. Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton.

``The department has drawn a line, and we think that's the right thing to do,'' said Scott Kovarovics, director of the Natural Trails and Waters Coalition. The move was unexpected in part because Norton has previously angered environmentalists by reaching resolutions in similar lawsuits over Clinton administration plans to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Denali National Parks.

Norton is scheduled to tour the Everglades today on her first official visit to Florida.

But Bill Horn, a Washington attorney who represents recreational users in Yellowstone, Denali and the Big Cypress, said it wasn't Interior that drew the line after months of talks that ended Friday.

``We were the ones that ended the negotiations,'' Horn said. ``We shook hands and agreed we'd see each other in court.''

Unlike a national park, the 729,000-acre preserve was intended to allow a wide range of uses, from hunting to oil drilling. But roaring airboats and lumbering swamp buggies have come under increasing fire from environmental groups and scientists, who charted some 22,000 miles of ruts across the preserve.

After years of prodding, the preserve issued a plan last August to limit swamp buggies to about 400 miles of designated trails and cut night use, among other restrictions. Horn said the plan all but ends pursuits like frog hunting and hampers access to hunting camps that have existed for generations.

``Our biggest problem is the Big Cypress is a preserve,'' he said. ``It's got a unique history. It was designed to accommodate these traditional uses.''

After negotiations with snowmobile manufacturers and users, Interior has backed off on two other bans. It put a plan in Yellowstone on hold until the impact could be reevaluated. In Denali, users dropped a lawsuit after Interior agreed to try to work out a solution in Congress.
 
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