With only 150 individuals left in the wild, the Florida panther is teetering on the brink of extinction. About a fifth of the big cats that do remain tread the damp soils of Big Cypress National Preserve in southwestern Florida. Unlike its neighboring Everglades, Big Cypress is still a relatively pristine wetland ecosystem, one that provides sanctuary for the critically endangered panther as well as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, the threatened wood stork, and the endangered snail kite.
But beneath their paws and claws is a muddied front line between commercial and environmental interests. While everything above the soil is entrusted to the National Park Service, what lies below belongs to the Collier family, the descendants of Barron Collier, who bought more than a million acres of land in southwestern Florida early in the last century (Big Cypress is found within Collier County).
When the Colliers imparted the land that became the preserve to the government in 1974, they kept the mineral rights. *As a result the NPS believes it has a legal obligation to provide reasonable access to the minerals (even though the agency doesn’t receive any profits in connection with the drilling). Under certain conditions, however—for instance, when activities threaten the ecological integrity of a preserve—the agency could reject a plan or require less damaging drilling methods. “The Park Service can and should seek alternatives, including seeking funds from Congress to buy the mineral rights,” says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at NRDC (which publishes onEarth). “Having 30-ton trucks go off-roading in Big Cypress definitely doesn’t mesh with the NPS’s mission to protect this delicate ecosystem.”
Mall is referring to the agency’s decision last month to approve a plan by Burnett Oil, a Texas company, to undertake seismic testing on 110 square miles of the 1,126-square-mile preserve. The decision has many Floridians and conservationists questioning whether the Park Service gave its mandate to protect natural resources enough consideration.
“This is going in a direction that we absolutely don’t want them to go in,” says Matthew Schwartz, executive director of South Florida Wildlands, an outspoken advocacy group for the preserve. “They [the NPS] are obligated to put resource protection above extractive activities. At the very least, they should have prepared a full-blown environmental impact statement.”
The Park Service conducted a two-year environmental assessment and found that the seismic testing would have “no significant impact” on Big Cypress’s forests, wetlands, or wildlife. Despite receiving thousands of comments from concerned conservationists and citizens, the Park Service says it considered the potential ecological consequences and deemed a more thorough environmental impact statement unnecessary.
“If people say there won’t be damage, they aren’t quite telling the truth,” says Don Findlay, a retired geologist involved in oil exploration for more than 30 years for major companies including Shell and Esso Husky and a resident of nearby Marco Island. “I’m concerned about the intrusion of big machines into a sensitive area.”
The first of four phases of the Nobles Grade 3-D Seismic Survey, which could begin as soon as November, would involve six vibroseis buggies, or “thumper trucks.“ These 30-ton vehicles would drive across the wetland in a grid pattern, stopping every so often to lower a thick metal plate to the ground and send shock waves into the geologic formations below, allowing the company to create a sort of ultrasound of the earth. The waves reflect back, revealing the possible locations of oil deposits. By the time all four phases were complete, the thumper trucks would have traversed 360 square miles, or 32 percent of Big Cypress, crushing whatever happens to lie beneath them.
The destruction, however, would go beyond flattened vegetation. Most environmental experts say that trucks entering parts of the preserve where motor vehicles have never before gone could lead to rutting and oxidation of fragile soils, hydrological changes due to the compaction of the earth, and the spread of invasive plant species, such as Brazilian pepper.
Then there’s the wildlife. Vehicle collisions remain the leading cause of death for the Florida panther. Should the sound and vibration of the trucks cause a cat to flee, panther experts fear it could run across nearby roads and get hit, or enter another panther’s territory, where the cats could fight and cause each other harm.
The oil industry has traditionally deployed seismic surveying trucks on the hard, compacted sand and clay soils of the American West, explains Nicholas Lund, senior manager for the landscape conservation program at the National Parks Conservation Association. None have been put to work in a wetland before Big Cypress.
To get an idea of what a fleet of thumper trucks might do the preserve’s habitat, just take a look of what a lighter version of vibroseis vehicles did to the sandy and marshy environs of Texas’s Padre Island National Seashore three decades ago. Lund says the evidence—channels, ruts, and trenches carved by tires—is still visible today in aerial pictures.
More recently, Burnett Oil sent some trucks out for a field test in Big Cypress last year. According to a compilation of field demonstration notes acquired through the Freedom of Information Act by Matthew Schwartz and posted here, the test stopped short when a thumper truck became wedged in a man-made ditch and needed rescuing. NPS field staff at the site that day concluded “that the test only involved an extremely minute portion of the entire 110-square-mile proposed exploratory area. Extrapolating the impacts observed to multiple vehicles in a much larger area suggests that the potential wetland impacts could be significant.”
Bob DeGross, a spokesperson for Big Cypress National Preserve, explained that the latest version of the environmental assessment, published in March 2016, addresses these concerns through 47 mitigation measures. For example, the buggies will be cleaned before driving onto the preserve to reduce the spread of invasive species. Another measure details how an ecologist would scout for and mark where tortoises, owl nests, and snake burrows are present. Trucks would then have to keep 50 feet away from those places. The buggies would also be allowed to cross the terrain only once in most areas, which the NPS says will limit the effects on the land’s soil, hydrology, and fauna.
Limited or not, the impacts listed above concern only seismic testing. Should Burnett Oil strike black gold in Big Cypress—a scenario that’s not far-fetched, considering that the company is looking right in the middle of a heavy oil-bearing region called the Sunniland Oil Trend—the next step would be building new roads, pads, and drill rigs in the so-called preserve. That, of course, would require another round of federal reviews and public input.
”The fear is that the project will lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which the geology of the area doesn’t support,” DeGross says. But he points out the land might not have become a preserve in the first place if a compromise had not been struck regarding the mineral rights.
If drilling proceeds in Big Cypress, it wouldn’t be the first time. Two oil fields, Bear Island and Raccoon Point, are currently in production in the park’s northwestern and eastern corners; both opened in the 1970s, before the National Environmental Policy Act was in full force, and so they underwent neither an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
Striking a balance between the Colliers’ right to the preserve’s resources below and the need to protect the flora, fauna, and habitat above is hard to achieve, particularly when we’re talking about habitats harboring endangered species. The NPS is currently updating the ”9B regulations” that govern private oil and gas rights within the National Park System. However, none of the changes would affect or impede the Nobles project. The new regulations would not prevent private entities, like the Colliers, from having equitable access to their mineral rights.
“This a reserve, and I don’t think we should be creeping through Big Cypress and looking for oil here,” concludes Findlay. “As a geologist, seismic exploration is very exciting, but not as a person who loves nature.”
*The paragraph above has been modified and added to since the original publication of the story. It previously read “the NPS has a legal obligation to provide reasonable access to the minerals."
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