Monday, October 30, 2023

Tribal co-management of National Parks (Part IV): Big Cypress National Preserve

For the last installment of my National Park co-management series, I'm looking at Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress covers more than 700,000 acres in southern Florida, north of the Everglades National Park. 

Big Cypress National Preserve (Antonio Chavez/Wikimedia Commons)
Big Cypress was the first National Preserve in the United States (Glacier Bay, another National Preserve I covered here, was a National Monument but became a National Park and Preserve in 1980). Parkland designations have a variety of meanings, but in the case of Big Cypress, the "preserve" designation didn't only preserve the swampland, it also preserved the preexisting land uses. Indigenous peoples thus retained their traditional use rights, as did other folks living in the swamp.

Big Cypress is the traditional homeland of the Calusa, Creek, Seminole, and Miccosukee peoples, among others. They have lived in Florida from time immemorial. Before contact with the Spanish, there were many nations and many peoples living throughout the state. After the arrival of the Spanish, disease, violence, and the slave trade decimated Florida's Indigenous population. Those who remained coalesced into broader Creek and Seminole groups. 

During Andrew Jackson's presidency, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which invalidated earlier treaties the United States had made with Florida Native peoples. The U.S. Army invaded Seminole territory and marched thousands of Seminole, Creek, and other Southeastern Indigenous people west to land that is known today as Oklahoma. The Seminole fought back for decades, eventually taking up residence deep in the Florida swampland. The US Army assumed that they would die there, and eventually abandoned the fight. 

Instead, the swamps of southern Florida have allowed the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes to thrive. The Seminole and Miccosukee have several reservations near Big Cypress and enjoy statutory rights to use the federal swampland as they traditionally would. Today, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is likely the wealthiest Tribe in the country. It operates 7 casinos in Southern Florida and owns Hard Rock International, the parent company of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. Forbes Magazine valued the Tribe and its business holdings at $12 billion. The next richest Tribe in the United States, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota in Minnesota, have an approximate net worth of $2.7 billion.

The homelands of the Seminole and Miccosuke peoples in Big Cypress were first protected because of a massive, futuristic airport project. In 1968, two years before the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to complete environmental impact surveys on proposed projects, the state of Florida proposed the construction of the Everglades JetPort, an airport for the future. Five times the size of JFK International Airport, the Everglades JetPort was designed for supersonic flight. Boeing was working on an American answer to the Concorde, and the JetPort was  to have six runways to land those jets. It would connect to both Florida coasts through a 1,000 foot-wide transportation corridor on either side, capable of "handling tracked air cushion vehicles traveling at speeds of 150 to 250 miles per hour."

As construction began, the undersecretary of the Interior asked Dr. Luna Leopold, the son of Aldo Leopold (author of A Sand County Almenac), to conduct the state of Florida's first Environmental Impact Survey. Dr. Leopold found that the construction of the airport would almost certainly destroy Everglades National Park. The proposed runways would be only six miles north of the Everglades' northern-most boundaries, destroying vital waterways and wildlife corridors for endangered species like the Florida Panther.  

In order to build the airport, Florida would have to fill in thousands of acres of swampland. The loss of swampland would have almost completely destroyed the water flow into the Everglades. Additionally, the Big Cypress swamps allow the  aquifer that provides the drinking water for all of South Florida to re-fill. Building a giant airport would not only jeopardize that process, it would potentially contaminate the ground water with hazardous substances commonly used at airports, like jet fuel.

The reaction to the environmental impact survey was enormous  most of it in opposition to the airport. Construction on the JetPort halted in 1970, after only one runway was built. The federal government acquired the land and established Big Cypress National Preserve in 1973 by an act of Congress.

Perhaps because of the time period in which the Preserve was established, the amount of public support for the parkland designation was remarkable. The project was supported by environmentalists, Tribal interests, and everyone else living there. In addition to the Seminole and Miccosukee, the swamps of south Florida were home to many white settlers who lived off of the swampland. These people, sometimes called Florida Crackers or Gladesmen (or women), were instrumental in the establishment of the Preserve. 

Unlike the other parks I've covered in this series, which were either owned by Tribal Nations or were federal land at the time they became parks, Big Cypress was a conglomeration of private land rights that were purchased expressly for preservation. The designation of National Preserve, the first in the country, preserved preexisting land uses, including Traditional Seminole and Miccosukee practices, as well as fishing, cattle grazing, and oil and gas exploration (note, however, that no new grazing permits are being issued).

What is most remarkable about this project is that it predates quite a lot of important environmental regulation. Much of the Clean Air Act was passed the same year the JetPort project died --1970. NEPA was also enacted in 1970. The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. Tribal interests, conservationists, and the people of Florida came together to prevent the construction of this airport before many of the conservation mechanisms we would use today existed. 

They were able to protect Big Cypress using older tools. 

Recently, the Collier Resources Company bought permits for oil exploration in Big Cypress. They gouged hundreds of miles of trails into the park to search for oil and gas reserves using a sonar-based system. Environmental organizations and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have spoken out about the damage the exploration has done. The National Parks Conservation Association is campaigning for the government to acquire Big Cypress's mineral rights to prevent any future extraction. 

This is the last post in my series about co-management of National Parks, so I want to offer a few over-arching observations. More so than I expected, co-management is a story of survival and of growth. The four parks I looked at were based on the four parks mentioned in this 2022 speech. Each park is unique and beautiful. Each co-management agreement is similarly unique. 

John Leshy spoke about the unique place that public trust land has in American politics at the California Lawyer's Association's Environmental Law Section Conference this year. (He covered similar topics in this interview) He argued that it can be a uniquely bipartisan issue. The creation of Big Cypress seems to exemplify that. The project was helmed by then-Senator Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, but had broad support across Florida.

I learned from Professor Leshy's talk that co-management is not defined anywhere in public lands law. He implied that this made further proliferation of these agreements more difficult. Though I don't doubt the difficulty of negotiating these agreements, it's possible that the process might make the management agreement fit with each ecosystem better. In each park, the co-management agreement has been different, according to the history, the landscape, and the interests of the Tribe(s) involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to land management in the United States. That's a good thing. 

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