In some areas, careful work by state managers, along with alliances between sportsmen groups and private businesses, have successfully overcome management disputes on federal lands and preserves.
One benefit of planning for the Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Plan is that it encouraged Nahma Township residents and businesses to take a more active role in the management of Hiawatha National Forest. Businesses and residents formed a task force to become involved in Forest Service planning, and to ensure community comments on the impacts the proposed road closures would have on recreation in the area — and, by extension, their community’s economy — would be taken into account. Soon after a contentious public meeting in fall 2016, the task force met with the Forest Service, Michigan DNR, county road officials and electricity utility representatives to begin working with the Forest Service on road and resource planning.
Community input has had an impact on the integrated resource management process; it has helped change the Forest Service’s plan for road closures in Hiawatha National Forest. As described previously, the initial public draft of the plan recommended that 95 percent of “Operational Maintenance Level 1” roads in the Nahma area be closed and that over 16 miles of what the Forest Service termed “illegal” off-road-vehicle trails be decommissioned.[*] The task force recognized that these closures would have a heavy impact on the area’s tourism economy, as many visitors to the area come specifically to use the trails and roads, and many local business serve those visitors.
Media reports indicate that as a result of the public meetings, some trails that receive the most public use, and hence were the source of the most active public concern, were “drawn out” and will be given “separate consideration” as part of the Forest Service plan. The resident-led task force was able to work with the Forest Service “to detail a viable plan to create a restricted multi-use designated trail on and along the Nahma Grade, the former railroad long since abandoned and offered as part of the Michigan Rails-to-Trails Program.”
A 2011 proposal by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to create a new wildlife refuge in the headwaters of the Everglades provoked a strong negative and public reaction from local landowners and wildlife groups. Federal wildlife managers claimed they were interested in protecting the area to enhance habitat for black bears and Florida panthers. But during the initial public outreach to test reactions to the proposal, Fish and Wildlife Service employees encountered as many as 600 people at meetings, most of whom were strongly opposed to expanding the preserve.
Media reports indicated that opposition was based on an initial planning document map showing a “study area” for the proposed refuge. Initial reports said the refuge area would be 150,000 acres, but the mapped area covered over one million acres. Wary outdoor, sporting, and recreation groups viewed the proposal as a land grab and a prelude to federal restrictions on traditional access and recreation activities, including hunting, fishing, off-road-vehicle access, and boating. The president of the Florida Airboat Association described his group’s resistance to the plan as being “against any federal sprawl,” stating, “We don’t condone the ‘lock it up, keep it out’ theory.”
Recognizing the lack of support for the proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission — state level managers — whom it knew had cultivated a long-term relationship with property owners, ranchers, hunters and fishers, and recreation groups around the state. Without state managers’ previous investment of time and effort to build trust and familiarity with local stakeholders, it is likely the proposal would have failed. But that trust, and a demonstrated willingness to protect and promote long-standing hunting and fishing rights, allowed commission employees to step in and broker an agreement between hunting groups and federal managers.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission employees headed two groups: the Sportsman's Trust Group and an assembly of landowners called the Northern Everglades Alliance. These two groups held monthly meetings and outings with state and federal government managers, where they worked through outstanding issues and built trust. An important initial concession on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service was to openly recognize the rights of residents to continue to hunt and recreate in a new refuge, and to then sign an agreement stipulating that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission would manage and oversee hunting within the new federal lands. With this commitment from the U.S. government, a 2012 memorandum of understanding between federal and state managers garnered the support of both landowners and sportsmen groups across the state.
In the same area, the state government is also employing another conservation technique that works with private landowners to build their trust at the same time it helps to ensure the long-term conservation of sensitive areas. In 2016, Florida Gov. Rick Scott approved the purchase of almost 4,000 acres of conservation easements within privately owned cattle ranches located in or near the headwaters of the Everglades. Rather than expropriating and preserving the areas — which would have caused widespread resistance for negatively impacting private property rights — the state signed permanent agreements to purchase the right to develop these areas from ranchers. The concept behind protecting the ranches from development is that doing so will bolster the financial well-being of area ranchers by allowing traditional cattle ranching to continue while also keeping areas that provide fresh water to the Everglades region undeveloped. Though the land remains in private hands, the easements on the properties require that they never be sold or used for development purposes.
Also in the state of Florida, and also at the center of the debate over how much access the public is granted to protected areas, is the story of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Previous examples in this paper have demonstrated how federal control can limit traditional public uses. This example, however, involves a single federal manager who was willing to go against the wishes of environmental special interests and also withstand preservationist pressures from within his own agency. Pedro Ramos, the superintendent of Big Cypress National Preserve, both listened to local residents and looked at the original intentions of the area’s designation as a preserve and argued that restricting traditional access would be “breaking the law.”
Originally established by Congress in 1974, the Big Cypress National Preserve was meant to protect the natural environment while also maintaining traditional hunting, fishing and recreational activities — including motorized access. One description of its creation called the preserve “a tremendous victory, born of a partnership among environmentalists, sportsmen, local Indian tribes and residents who did not want to see the area turned into a planned airport.”
In 1988, the federal government acquired 146,000 acres around the preserve, with the intent of adding this “addition” to the preserve’s original 582,000 acres. Contrary to congressional intentions, which had specifically allowed for oil and gas exploration, as well as hunting, fishing, and trapping in the original preserve and the addition lands, federal managers immediately ordered that the use of existing off-road-vehicle trails in these lands cease.[†] Environmental groups in the area actively supported efforts to ban motorized access and pushed for even more restrictions, as well as arguing for a wilderness designation. Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, argued that the wilderness designation would protect the area’s “essentially wild character” and halt any further attempts at development.
But long before the additional area was considered for the preserve, it had been partially developed and inhabited. The “Gladesmen” who lived and recreated in the area had used homemade swamp buggies and a variety of off-road vehicles for recreation, hunting and other uses. Looking back at the history of use, the president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen's Alliance, Lyle McCandless, argued that for over six decades, a mix of recreational and commercial activities had been the norm for the area: “[F]arming, ranching, timber removal, oil exploration, air strips, tram roads, private homes, private hunting cabins, existing off-road vehicle trails, etc., to say nothing of the fact that the 147,000-acre Addition Lands are divided by I-75, a four-lane interstate highway.” McCandless argued that this level of activity refuted the notion that the area could possibly be considered “untrammeled by man,” or considered for a wilderness designation.
As was the case with the initial preserve designation, the focus of the addition was to protect wetlands and fresh water resources, as well as endangered Florida panthers, black bears and several other protected species. But in its plan to create the preserve, Congress had clearly stated that the National Park Service “shall permit hunting” in the preserve. Pedro Ramos publicly disagreed with the environmental groups that were pushing for further restrictions on traditional activities and argued that he had a legal imperative to allow their continued use. He acted to remove the restrictions.
Environmental groups litigated the issue, and in 2014, a court ruling recognized the rights of residents and sportsmen to continue traditional uses of the area. The presiding judge wrote, “The Preserve and Addition … have both a conservation mandate and a mandate to allow multiple uses, including recreational [off-road-vehicle] use on designated trails.”
While the courts ruled in favor of residents and sportsmen groups, the end result was a solid compromise between conservation and preservation. It’s unlikely this outcome would have been realized were it not for the efforts of a federal manager who recognized the value of collaborating with, and listening to, a variety of voices. Ramos demonstrated an expectation that the preserve would be managed to meet multiple public interests.
[*] “Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Project” (U.S. Forest Service, Aug. 30, 2016), https://perma.cc/99R3-PARZ. By closed or decommissioned, the draft plan did not only mean they would no longer be maintained; it meant that the roads and trails would be gated, blocked by felled trees, rocks, etc. so that passage by any means other than foot would be difficult, if not impossible.
[†] Based on February 27, 2018, telephone interview conducted by the author with Nick Wiley, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited. Mr. Wiley was formerly the executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. While it would still be technically possible to hunt in the area, banning motorized access effectively halted hunting activities in all but the border areas of the addition lands, and for all but the most physically capable of residents.