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Greens Can't Block Off Road Vehicle Use in Park

(CN) - A federal judge in Florida denied environmentalists requests to tighten limits on off-road-vehicles in the Big Cypress National Preserve, while preserving other claims regarding some 40,000 acres deemed ineligible to be considered "wilderness."

The National Parks Conservation Association and John Adornato III sued the U.S. Dept. of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service in October 2011, claiming the defendants violated a number of environmental protection regulations as they considered future uses for a 112,400-acre addition to the 720,000-acre park, located about an hour's drive west of Miami.

The plaintiff's two principal claims were that numerous off-road-vehicle trails the parks service plans to create within the confines of the expanded preserve would be too damaging to the endangered species habitats it contains, and that the National Parks Service erred in not mandating that all the "addition lands" be designated for Congressional protection.

U.S. District Judge John E. Steele later consolidated the case with a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Florida Biodiversity Project, the Sierra Club, South Florid Wildlands Association, and Wilderness Watch that advanced largely the same claims.

Before him were five cross motions for summary judgment on those consolidated cases.

The dispute has a lengthy background. In 1988, Congress authorized the acquisition of the 122,400-acre addition lands in 1988. While there are approximately 244 miles of ORV trails on the addition lands which pre-date the 1988 Congressional authorization, these trails were closed to public use when the parks service began administering the Addition lands in 1996.

The latest management plan for the land - the subject at the heart of the litigation - allows recreational off-road-vehicle use in addition lands on designated trails within 49,449 acres designated as "backcountry recreation;" provides for the future designation of approximately 130 miles of primary off-road-vehicle trails in three phases; prohibits off-road-vehicle use in 96,413 acres designated as "primitive backcountry;" and purposes 47,067 acres for "wilderness" designation.

It also found that 40,000-acres of the original acquisition don't qualify for wilderness protections.

The plaintiffs argued the plan directly contradicts findings of a 2006 management plan for the park. As an example, they point to a Fish and Wildlife Service finding in which the agency concluded that there is a '"significant threat of extinction' of the Florida panther, of which it is estimated only 113 remain, concentrated heavily in the area" of the new trails.

"Nevertheless, the plaintiffs continued, in its biological opinion on the expanded off-road-vehicle tails, "FWS arbitrarily and capriciously concluded that creating 130 miles of primary ORV trails through the panthers' habitat in the Addition was not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Florida panther."

The National Parks Service relied on this and other "flawed" opinions from the defendant federal agencies in proposing and planning to open the new trails, and the decision to do so will compromise any future effort to protect the land, the plaintiffs said.

They wanted the decision and associated findings found null and void, and for the National Park Service to be prevented from operating its off-road-vehicles advisory committee unless its membership includes more environmentalists.

But U.S. District Judge John E. Steele largely sided with the agencies, finding that the analysis performed before the finalized the plan was thorough and followed regulatory lines. He also concluded that as the agencies concede they will need to perform another analysis if and when secondary trails and hunting are proposed to be opened, the plaintiffs can't yet claim any tangible injury from the proposal.

Judge Steele noted that both the preserve and the addition were intended to have off-road-vehicle use, albeit with restrictions, and therefore to bar all off-road-vehicle use would violate the National Park Service Organic At and the Preserve and Addition Establishment Acts.

"For the Wildness Act claims, the alleged injury is not ORV use, but the failure to include the 40,000 acres in the mix for potential Congressional wilderness designation," Steele wrote. "The ultimate substantive issue in these claims is whether the Federal Defendants violated the Wilderness Act when they excluded the 40,000 acres from their wilderness Eligibility Determination. Resolution of this issue is not dependent upon actual ORV use in Addition land."

Steele said in light of the park service's decision to exclude the acreage from the preserve, clear the agency is no longer managing the land.

"Plaintiffs have show that a delayed review will cause them undue hardship since the management of the 40,000 acres is no longer with an eye toward preserving wilderness eligibility, and the current management may itself undermine wilderness eligibility. The Court concludes that the Wilderness Act claims are ripe for adjudication," Steele wrote.