IN THE BIG CYPRESS SWAMP — The only thing they all agree on is that they love the swamp.
But the coalition of hunters and environmentalists that worked together to save this soggy paradise in the 1970s has now fractured and is battling over its future. The fight is over whether the Big Cypress National Preserve will become an inviolate wilderness to protect the Florida panther, or remain a place where hunters can roar through some areas on off-road vehicles in search of deer, turkey and hogs.
According to the hunters, the hard feelings are hampering efforts to establish a 150,000-acre federal wildlife refuge in the Everglades' headwaters in Central Florida. They say the hunters and ranchers who might otherwise be interested in helping are instead suspicious of the motives of the people pushing the idea.
"People are saying, 'You can't trust the feds or the enviros,' '' said Franklin Adams, a former Florida Wildlife Federation president who helped save Big Cypress from a proposed jetport in the early 1970s.
Sparking the uproar is a lawsuit filed this month by the National Parks Conservation Association, which since 1919 has regarded itself as a supporter and watchdog over what the National Park Service does on federal lands. The NPCA sued the park service to block a plan that would allow hunters to use 130 miles of off-road vehicle trails in a section of the preserve called the Addition Lands.
The suit accuses the management of the 729,000-acre Big Cypress preserve of manipulating science, ignoring federal law and skewing an advisory panel so it would side with hunters. NPCA's South Florida representative, John Adornato, says his group has nothing against hunters but points out that federal park rules say preservation is more important than recreation, so you can't go skateboarding through the Lincoln Memorial.
In this case, he said, "The park service chose recreation over conservation."
That issue has dogged Big Cypress' management for decades. Hunters have been using swamp buggies, airboats and other off-road vehicles to traverse the swampy terrain since before the federal government owned the property.
In the early 1970s, when Miami officials proposed building the world's largest jetport in the middle of Big Cypress, hunters were among those alarmed.
"People became galvanized," Adams recalled.
They joined forces with environmental groups and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians to stop it. One young Audubon Society activist, Joe Browder, even recruited gator poachers to help.
Ultimately the jetport's funding was shot down by President Richard Nixon, and the unlikely coalition began pushing for the state or federal government to buy the land. But the only way to get political support for that was to ensure Big Cypress would not become a national park, where no hunting is allowed. Instead, it was declared a "preserve," which allows hunters access.
But the off-road vehicles tore up the preserve, sometimes knocking over cypress trees and frequently leaving ruts that interrupted the flow of water through the preserve adjacent to Everglades National Park.
Lawsuits and lobbying by environmental groups finally prompted preserve officials to scale back the areas where hunters could zoom around from 25,000 linear miles of trails to 500 miles, Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos said.
However, in February, Big Cypress' management released a plan for nearly 147,000 acres known as the Addition Lands, so called because they were added to the preserve in 1988.
Previously, the Addition Lands had been off-limits to off-road vehicles, but the plan called for building 130 more miles of trails and issuing about 600 new permits for off-road vehicles, to be confined to 40,000 acres.
Hunters grumbled that the 130 miles seemed minimal. NPCA complained that it was too much. It was, Ramos acknowledged, a compromise between extremes.
Hunters groups talked about suing, but NPCA went to court first. Its suit contended hunters on off-road vehicles would scare Florida panthers and their prey, as well as disrupt the flow of water in Big Cypress and in adjacent Everglades National Park.
"NPS should throw the current plan out and start over," said Adornato.
The suit has not made Adornato's group popular, even with other environmentalists. No other group has joined in the suit.
One of Florida's most prominent Everglades activists, nature photographer Clyde Butcher, stopped in the middle of giving a tour of Big Cypress to journalists Thursday to say he was appalled by NPCA's challenge to Ramos' management.
"I don't know why those environmental groups are getting upset," Butcher announced, standing knee deep in the cool, dark water, a battered cowboy hat shading his white-bearded face. "Big Cypress is doing a great job of protecting this place."
Later Butcher posed for a photo hugging one side of a large cypress tree, grasping the hands of Ramos, who was hugging the tree from the other side.
On the bus ride back to Miami, Browder and Adornato got into a heated debate about the lawsuit. When it was his turn, Ramos, his voice cracking, lamented how two groups that once worked together now can't say anything nice about each other.
"When I hear the rhetoric, and the lack of will to respect the people who nearly gave their lives to make this place what it is today, that breaks my heart," he said.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]