33100 U.S. 41 E, Ochopee, FL
COLLIER COUNTY — Mile marker 63 of Alligator Alley was a crossroads Sunday.
At first glance, it was merely one of a handful of rest stops along the desolate stretch of highway.
But Sunday, it was transformed into the intersection between old Florida culture and the conservation of the delicate Everglades ecosystem inside Big Cypress National Preserve.
“We’ve been patiently negotiating with the park service for years trying to come up with a solution for access to the preserve,” said Lyle McCandless. “We have to defend our traditional cultural rights.”
McCandless led the charge by about 75 sportsmen, hunters, fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts Sunday who say the National Park Service is working to keep a large portion of the preserve off limits to motorized vehicles. Without swamp buggies and other all-terrain vehicles, much of the land cannot be accessed at all, said McCandless, president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance.
And that, he said, is an abridgement of the rights of Florida residents, many of whom grew up fishing, frogging, camping and hunting in the back bays and swamps of Southwest Florida.
The protest, an orderly affair, centered on 147,000 acres of land just north of the mile marker 63 rest stop along Interstate 75. That parcel, known as the Addition Lands, was added to the preserve in 1988. However, it has been largely off limits to motorized traffic since then, and a new National Park Service proposal would create 140 miles of off-road vehicle trails while designating 86,000 acres as wilderness.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner “Alligator Ron” Bergeron likened the fight to the need to preserve Native American culture. He was personally involved in the creation of the preserve in 1974, an act he called “the greatest preservation of land in modern time.”
“It was very important to everyone involved that it be a preserve and not a national park,” Bergeron said. “There was supposed to be hunting, fishing, sight-seeing for the people of Florida — sustainable access — sort of like how we preserve the culture of the Indians.”
But opponents of the protestors’ stance question that definition of preservation.
“We don’t have any dispute with these folks working for what they want,” said Matthew Schwartz, chair of the Broward County Sierra Club chapter. “The Addition Lands get a lot of use by non-motorized vehicles already. The use of off-road vehicles with hiking is not compatible. There are very few places in Southwest Florida still declared wilderness eligible.”
Schwartz stopped by the protest Sunday on his way out to a 5-mile hike in the preserve. He shook hands and exchanged greetings with many of the public officials there to support the protestors. The only things setting him apart from the protestors were his Sierra Club T-shirt and the absence from his hands of the ubiquitous white “Stop Taking Our Preserve” signs dotting the protest.
But he said the debate to keep all-terrain vehicles out of the preserve is about more than how humans should share a resource. Motorized vehicles carry invasive species into sensitive ecosystems, he said. Panthers often abandon a habitat like the preserve once it gets overrun with vehicle traffic.
“You can’t interview a panther to ask, ‘How do you feel about the use of motorized vehicles for hunting?’” Schwartz said.
But Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner said the protesters are simply asking for a balance: give access to the sportsmen, who will in turn promote responsible use of the land. He said in Hendry County he enjoys horseback riding, but is restricted to the use of established trails. He cannot stray from paths that have already been cut, and that frustrates him.
“I’m just simply wanting to get our there and explore it the way I have for years,” he said. “There has to be a balance. That’s what I want to stress.”
State Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who joined Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta at the protest, told the crowd that desire is a basic right. Hudson said that without full motorized access to the Addition Lands, disabled people — most notably veterans — cannot enjoy their own national parks.
“You bought that land,” he said to the crowd. “Shouldn’t you have a right to use it — use it responsibly, obviously — but have a right to use it?”
The public comment period on the National Park Service proposal lasts through Sept. 30. To read a draft of the Addition Lands access plan and submit comments, go to www.nps.gov/bicy or write to Big Cypress National Preserve Planning Team, P.O. Box 25287, Denver, Colo., 80225-0287.