TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to donate nearly 30,000 acres of state land to the Big Cypress National Preserve hit a snag Tuesday over fears the federal government may ban such activities as hunting, invasive species eradication and the use of mechanical firefighting equipment.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet delayed action because the National Park Service hasn't completed a plan covering such management issues. The Big Cypress, covering 720,000 acres of South Florida swampland, borders the Everglades and is essential to its health.
"We're losing more and more land in Florida for public access, for public hunting," said Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. "We should know what's going to happen with this land, who's going to have access, who's not."
Bronson also said he's worried a federal wilderness designation would prevent removal of diseased trees and allow the buildup of vegetation that could fuel wildfires.
If invasive species eradication is banned, the Big Cypress would wind up preserving the ecology of Asia and Central and South America rather than Florida, Bronson said.
Some of the exotic plant species that have invaded Florida are cogon grass, Brazilian pepper, Melaleuca trees, Australian pine and the ubiquitous kudzu. The foreign fauna include Burmese pythons, fire ants, European starlings, Asian swap eels and walking catfish.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew she was unsure when the plan would be completed and said she didn't know what will be in it due to federal confidentiality requirements.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said delaying the donation may "inspire them to get off their heinies" and complete the plan.
"If they want to do it, they can do this," Attorney General Bill McCollum said.
A pair of environmentalists urged the panel to approve the deal.
"Wilderness areas will allow hunting as well as fishing and the National Park Service is very committed to wildlife management in those areas," said Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida. "It's been a long time coming and it really is in the best interest of Florida, both ecologically and financially."
Wraithmell and Andy McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy, noted the deal also requires the federal government to pay the state $4 million that could be used to protect more environmentally valuable land or further Everglades restoration.
The payment is due because the state is providing more than its 20 percent share of the joint land acquisition project. Florida has spent $19 million and the National Park Service $56 million for a combined $75 million.
Wraithmell said Florida hasn't been managing the land and as a result there's been trespassing and dumping, which the state may be required to clean up.
In other action, Crist and the Cabinet approved a new five-year plan for the state's environmental land-buying program.
The plan adds five new projects to the Florida Forever priority list: the Peace River Refuge, 3,855 acres, and the Peaceful Horse Ranch, 4,414 acres, both in DeSoto County; Suwannee County Preservation, 1,449 acres; and Wolfe Creek Forest, 10,645 acres in Santa Rosa County.