The Big Cypress National Preserve sits on the eastern edge of Collier County, but what happens there is closer to many people’s hearts.
About 30 of them showed up Tuesday night at Edison State College in East Naples to tell the National Park Service what they think of a proposal to change the way hunting is managed in the 729,000-acre preserve.
A second meeting is scheduled for tonight in Broward County. More public meetings are set for early next year to review a draft plan, which is expected to be final by April 2012.
Tuesday’s meeting had been set up for participants to provide their input one-on-one with Park Service officials, but Superintendent Pedro Ramos changed the plan when the sportsmen-heavy audience insisted the crowd hear what everybody had to say.
Sportsmen called on the Park Service to reopen part of the preserve to hunting and to throw out a proposal to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a new framework for hunting management decisions. Environmental advocates urged no additional hunting in the preserve.
Native American Bobbie C. Billie, who was born in the preserve, said he remembers it as a place where water flowed unobstructed and where deer and fish teemed. He blamed hunters for ruining it and pushing him out.
“You stopped us, we need to stop you,” said Billie, 67, a clan leader with the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation north of Lake Okeechobee.
Many sportsmen are wary that a new framework involving the Fish and Wildlife Service would mean hunting restrictions to protect deer and hog that are the main prey of endangered Florida panthers.
Longtime Naples resident Bill Clark said increased panther numbers are evidence that hunting in the preserve is well-managed without a new framework they see as the federal government ganging up on them.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said Clark, 73, vice president of the Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance.
The Park Service is in the early stages of considering three alternatives as it moves to set rules for part of the preserve known as the Addition Lands, about 147,000 acres north of Interstate 75. The land was part of a swap with the Collier family in 1988, and hunting and swamp buggies have been prohibited there ever since to the frustration of sportsmen.
One alternative would extend the same hunting rules to the Addition Lands that apply in the rest of the preserve. A second alternative would prohibit hunting in the Addition Lands, which sportsmen say runs counter to the laws that set up the preserve in 1974 and should not even be on the table.
A third alternative would set up the new framework involving the Fish and Wildlife Service along with the Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Hunting rules would be reviewed annually.
Lake Placid resident Shannon Larsen, who grew up in Miami and spent time in the preserve, said hunters were asking for too much at the expense of the animals who live in the Addition Lands.
“We need to give them this place,” Larsen said. “We need, for once, to do something right for them.”
The hunting plan comes on the heels of a controversial decision by the Park Service to recommend that Congress create a wilderness designation in the Addition Lands that would limit swamp buggy access.
Big Cypress Sportsmen’s Alliance President Lyle McCandless said his side was outgunned by environmental groups who rallied wilderness supporters nationwide. He said the inclusion of a no-hunting alternative for the Addition Lands will do the same thing again.
“We’re going to end up behind the blocks,” he said.
Comments on the Big Cypress National Preserve hunt management plan process are being accepted through Sept. 16 at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/ or by mail to Superintendent, Big Cypress National Preserve, 33100 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee FL, 34141-1000.