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For Immediate Release, May 15, 2013

Contact:  Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190,
Alexis Meyer, Sierra Club, (727) 490-8215,
Matthew Schwartz, South Florida Wildlands Association, (954) 993-5351,
Sarah Peters, Wildlands CPR, (541) 345-0299,
Brian Scherf,

Lawsuit Filed to Protect Big Cypress and Florida Panthers From Off-road Vehicles

FORT MYERS, Fla.— In an effort to reduce damaging off-road vehicle use in Big Cypress National Preserve, conservation groups filed a lawsuit today against the National Park Service for failing to protect Florida panthers and other imperiled species. The suit asserts that the Park Service violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the preserve's own Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan by designating hundreds of miles of new trails for off-road vehicle use across two units of the preserve.  

“Big Cypress is prime habitat for the Florida panther, and protection of big open spaces where animals like panthers can roam undisturbed is the primary purpose of the preserve,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “As Floridians, we have an obligation to keep places like this protected for our wildlife.”

The 720,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve, located just north of the Everglades National Park, was established by Congress as the first national preserve in our nation's history to protect the natural, scenic, hydrologic, floral, faunal and recreational values of the watershed, including panthers. To that end, Congress stressed that public use would come second to maintaining this fragile and unique natural landscape.

In July 2012, a federal judge ruled that the Park Service’s major expansion of ORV trails in the preserve’s Bear Island Unit violated environmental laws and the Park Service’s management plan for ORVs in the preserve, and set aside the unauthorized increase in trails. This litigation would secure similar protections for endangered and threatened species such as the Florida panther and eastern indigo snake, as well as fragile wetlands and rare and endemic plants in the Corn Dance and Turner River units.

“Big Cypress is one of the most important sanctuaries for Florida panthers.” said Alexis Meyer, Sierra Club’s associate organizing representative. “The addition of hundreds of miles of trails for motorized recreational vehicles not only poses a threat to panthers, but also degrades the habitat of many plant and animal species.”

“NPS acknowledges that off-road vehicle use in the Big Cypress is a high-impact recreational activity which damages soils and plants, changes hydrology, leads to the spread of invasive plant species, fragments habitat, disturbs wildlife, and degrades the experience of the preserve for the many non-motorized visitors,” said Matthew Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “The purpose of the preserve's Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan is to allow for continued motorized recreational use in the preserve — but only on a specified mileage of designated trails."

“With the opening of these trails in Big Cypress, the Park Service has failed to protect valuable and sensitive resources of the preserve from off-road vehicle damage, failed to appropriately involve the public in its management decisions, and failed to comply with the preserve’s management direction.” said Sarah Peters, a staff attorney with Wildlands CPR.

The Park Service issued the ORV plan in 2000 following years of advocacy by environmentalists for transition from dispersed use — which had created 23,000 miles of trails throughout the preserve — to a sustainable system of designated trails. The plan drastically reduced the extensive network of trails that had been created. But in defiance of that plan, the Park Service has now increased the miles of trails where ORVs may go in the Corn Dance and Turner River units by nearly 100 percent and 60 percent respectively.

The conservation groups are represented by the Washington, D.C. public interest environmental law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with more than 2.1 million members and supporters nationwide. In addition to creating opportunities for people of all ages, levels and locations to have meaningful outdoor experiences, the Sierra Club works to safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places.

South Florida Wildlands Association is a Florida nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of habitat and wilderness in the Greater Everglades.

Wildlands CPR is a national nonprofit that revives and protects wild places by promoting watershed restoration to improve fish and wildlife habitat, provide clean water and enhance community economies.  We focus on reclaiming ecologically damaging, unneeded roads and on stopping off-road vehicle abuse of public lands.

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