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National Park Service proposes letting hunters and off-road vehicles onto Big Cypress preserve

FORT LAUDERDALE — A federal proposal would open a vast sweep of forest and swamp on both sides of Alligator Alley to hunting and off-road vehicles.

The National Park Service has proposed establishing more than 85,000 acres of wilderness beginning on the western border of Broward County, as part of a plan for managing 146,000 acres added to Big Cypress National Preserve in 1988.

The wilderness acres would be cut by nonwilderness corridors allowing hunters to access remote areas on swamp buggies and all-terrain vehicles, which are currently barred from the area.

An environmental review released with the proposal Friday found that the plan would have a "moderate adverse" impact on the endangered Florida panther living there because the cats avoid areas with increased numbers of hunters and hikers.

The park service will prepare a final plan after a public comment period ends Sept. 30. The wilderness designation must be authorized by Congress.

John Adornato, South Florida director of the National Parks Conservation Association, criticized the plan for allowing any off-road trails in wetland areas south of Alligator Alley, the highway that stretches across the Florida Everglades.

"I'm disappointed that the preserve has chosen to disregard wetlands protection by putting these trails through sensitive habitat," he said. "They would segment panther habitat."

Big Cypress, created by Congress in 1974, was designated a national preserve to allow hunting, off-road vehicles, oil drilling and other activities that ordinarily would not take place in a national park. The area is also home to black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers and other protected species.

National Park Service proposes letting hunters and off-road vehicles onto Big Cypress preserve 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 8:10pm]

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