Press Release Feb 8, 2023

National Park Advocates Call on EPA to Protect Big Cypress National Preserve from Oil and Gas Exploration

In recent years, massive oil hunts across the wilderness of Big Cypress National Preserve have caused heartbreaking damage to this iconic national park site. The EPA has a chance to stop it for good.

Today, the National Parks Conservation Association is publicly calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its Clean Water Act powers to protect Big Cypress National Preserve, part of America’s Everglades, from damage caused by oil drilling.

Given the EPA’s requirements under Section 404c of the Clean Water Act, NPCA believes the agency must take action to protect vital wetlands of Big Cypress National Preserve from harmful oil development now and into the future. Section 404c gives EPA the power to preemptively “veto,” or restrict, the State of Florida from authorizing the use of certain wetlands as discharge or disposal sites, when those activities would have an adverse effect on water, wildlife, or recreation areas.

At Big Cypress, use of this authority would prevent oil companies from further damaging a national park site, which was designated to protect its ecosystem, wildlife, and water resources. In 1974—two years after Congress enacted the Clean Water Act—Congress established Big Cypress National Preserve as a national park unit. In its enabling legislation, Congress clarified that the Preserve’s paramount purpose was “to assure the preservation, conservation, and protection of the natural, scenic, hydrologic, floral and faunal, and recreational values of the Big Cypress Watershed in the State of Florida and to provide for the enhancement and public enjoyment thereof.”

Keeping Big Cypress National Preserve healthy is a crucial component in successfully restoring the Everglades, the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. Everglades Restoration is a bipartisan priority supported by the federal government and state of Florida to the tune of billions of dollars, a historic level of funding.

Dr. Melissa Abdo, Sun Coast Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association said, “In recent years, massive oil hunts across the wilderness of Big Cypress National Preserve have caused heartbreaking damage to this iconic national park site. While national park advocates have expressed concern about the ecological threats that oil development poses to Big Cypress for many decades, the seismic oil exploration conducted in 2017 and 2018 dealt a blow to the Preserve unlike any we have ever seen here before. Trucks and heavy machinery ripped apart this landscape, leaving vast cypress prairies within the River of Grass with wounds and scars that have still not healed to this day.

“Enough is enough,” Abdo continued. “Today, we’re calling on the EPA to take swift action to prevent this kind of damage from ever happening again in Big Cypress. For the sake of these critical wetlands, and the vital importance they have for plants, animals, recreation and the people of South Florida, it’s time to protect this national park site once and for all.”

In 2017 and 2018, Burnett Oil Company conducted oil and gas exploration activities inside Big Cypress using seismic testing survey methods. The company’s exploratory activities caused many adverse impacts to the preserve: it created massive soil ruts — some as deep as two feet — altering natural vegetation, wetland soils, wildlife habitat, and hydrology in this incredibly important part of the River of Grass. This damage can still be seen in the Preserve today and is so alarmingly distinctive that it is easily identified both on the ground and from the air.

Avoiding this type of lasting damage to some of our nation’s most sensitive water resources is precisely why Congress authorized the EPA to restrict wetland dredge and fill permits where there will be adverse effects. Thus, consistent with Section 404c of the Clean Water Act and the strong federal laws and policies that protect the preserve’s fragile resources from impairment, NPCA urges the EPA to take prompt action to conserve these critically important wetlands from future destruction resulting from oil and gas exploration and extraction.

More than 40 percent of the fresh water that flows south to Everglades National Park and surrounding communities comes from Big Cypress National Preserve. Many vulnerable and endangered flora and fauna make their home in Big Cypress, including Florida panthers, Florida bonneted bats, Big Cypress fox squirrels, and ghost orchids. Organizations and advocates concerned about the preserve’s wildlife and water resources have documented years-long efforts to protect the preserve at www.savebigcypress.org.

While Big Cypress National Preserve is a national park site, some of the oil and gas beneath the preserve is privately owned in what is commonly referred to as a “split estate.” While any oil and gas activity in a national park site is of deep concern to NPCA, our request for EPA to exercise its 404c veto power is limited to preventing new exploratory or development activities and does not apply to legacy oil fields already in the preserve.

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About the National Parks Conservation Association: Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks. NPCA and its more than 1.6 million members and supporters work together to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for future generations. For more information, visit www.npca.org.

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