March 16, 2021

Ms. Shannon Estenoz
Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary
Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife and Parks
US DOI, Office of the Secretary
Washington, DC 20240

Mr. Shawn Benge
Deputy Director, Operations
Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director, National Park Service
1849 C Street NW Washington, DC 20240

Dear Deputy Assistant Secretary Estenoz and Deputy Director Benge:

We are writing to you on behalf of National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks regarding several issues of significant concern at Big Cypress National Preserve. Our concerns are briefly summarized as follows:

Concern # 1 (Urgent): NPS should prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), rather than an environmental assessment (EA), for the proposed Burnett Oil operations at Big Cypress.

Concern # 2 (Urgent): The pending backcountry access plan/EIS (BAP) for BICY should be put on hold until the NPS issues a supplemental EIS that includes a wilderness study for the original preserve, as described in the preserve’s 2015 wilderness suitability assessment (WEA)1https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=352&projectID=49334&documentID=66937, and until NPS completes all Research Needs required by the 2000 Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan2The Final Recreational Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Big Cypress National Preserve is commonly referred to, and herein referred to, as the 2000 ORV Management Plan. Published by the National Park Service in 2000, Ochopee, FL. See Table 3: Research Needs: pgs 59-63..

Concern # 3 (Long-term): To resolve the ongoing oil and gas threats to the resources of Big Cypress, the Department should fully consider exercising its authority under the Preserve’s enabling legislation to acquire some, if not all, of the remaining oil and gas rights at the Preserve. Acquisition of mineral interests is eligible for LWCF funding.

These concerns are described in more detail below.

Concern # 1 (Urgent): An EIS, rather than an EA, should be prepared for the current Burnett Oil applications. Despite the severity of the environmental impacts caused by Burnett’s vibroseis seismic surveys in 2017 and 2018, the preserve superintendent has announced that NPS plans to proceed with only an EA for the proposed drilling3NPS Supt. Forsyth has refused our requests to release the permit applications filed by Burnett Oil co. to NPS, and herein we reiterate our request to access those public records immediately. Through other publicly available records, we are aware that Burnett Oil co. filed an Operations Permit application with NPS on August 14, 2020.. An EA is inadequate, as it would inherently be tiered off of a grossly outdated 1992 general management plan (GMP)/EIS4https://www.nps.gov/bicy/learn/management/upload/19920127-BICY-GMP-Vol-1.pdf and associated oil and gas management plan, both of which are now 30 years old.

Neither plan contemplated or evaluated the potential environmental impacts of oil extraction techniques that are now commonly in use. Such now-common techniques include horizontal offset drilling and oil well stimulation methods, such as fracking and acidizing, which are intended to facilitate production from unconventional oil deposits such as those found in Big Cypress. These activities require the construction of roads and drilling pads capable of supporting the heavy vehicles used to conduct those activities, and have been proposed in two distinct areas of the Preserve. Potential adverse impacts of road construction and drilling operations in the Preserve include unlawful impacts to wilderness eligible areas (i.e. in the Nobles Grade region), disruption of surface hydrology, water pollution from leaks and spills, damage to native plants, disturbance and fragmentation of wildlife (e.g., Florida panther and Florida bonneted bat) habitat, and noise and visual impacts to dispersed recreational users. Lacking a detailed analysis of these extraction techniques, the grossly outdated 1992 EIS is not a valid basis upon which NPS can. appropriately tier an EA for the proposed Burnett Oil drilling operation in the fragile wetlands and
prairies of Big Cypress, and an EIS for any new permit applications5NPS Supt. Forsyth has refused our requests to release the permit applications filed by Burnett Oil co. to NPS, and herein we reiterate our request to access those public records immediately. Through other publicly available records, we are aware that Burnett Oil co. filed an Operations Permit application with NPS on August 14, 2020. should be completed.

Concern # 2 (Urgent): The proposed Backcountry Access Plan (BAP), which closed its draft EIS to public comment in mid-December 2020, should include a full wilderness study as indicated in the 2015 wilderness eligibility assessment (WEA) prepared in support of the proposed plan. That 2015 WEA, which was not subject to public comment, reduced the amount of eligible wilderness in the original preserve by about 40,000 acres compared to a wilderness suitability assessment that had been proposed by the preserve superintendent in 2002.

The “lost wilderness” acres include areas of the preserve being proposed for new ORV trails in the BAP/DEIS and for development of new oil operations per the pending Burnett Oil application. Despite this, the recent BAP/DEIS dismissed “wilderness characteristics” as an impact topic (see DEIS at 154).

Completing the BAP before a definitive wilderness study is prepared is a serious flaw in the sequencing of two interrelated planning processes (i.e., the BAP and the wilderness study). As currently being conducted by NPS, the BAP would prematurely commit significant portions of the preserve to development that had been previously considered eligible for wilderness designation while depriving the public an opportunity to comment on NPS’s most recent wilderness eligibility proposal. The most straight-forward way to correct this fundamental flaw in the process would be for NPS to prepare the wilderness study and allow public comment on it before the BAP EIS is finalized.

Concern # 3 (Long-term): Given the open-ended possibility of additional oil and gas drilling proposals at the preserve in the future, we urge the Department to pursue acquisition of non-federal mineral interests at Big Cypress. Such action is provided for in the Preserve’s enabling act (the Act) (P.L. 93-440): Section 1(c) of the Act authorizes the Department to acquire oil and gas rights from consenting owners or if “the Secretary, in [her] judgment, determines that such property is subject to, or threatened with, uses which are, or would be, detrimental to the purposes of the preserve.” Clearly, as demonstrated by the vibroseis seismic fiasco, oil and gas exploration and related drilling operations can be extremely detrimental to the
conservation purposes of the preserve. The definitive solution for preventing environmental harms caused by further oil and gas exploration and development at Big Cypress would be for the Department to exercise its authority under the Preserve’s enabling legislation to acquire some, if not all, of the remaining oil and gas rights at the Preserve.

The Department has explored the possibility of acquiring the oil and gas rights at the Preserve in the past, but the most recent attempt in the early 2000’s was poorly handled, resulting in Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation which surfaced the fact that the Secretary had found that “proposed [oil] exploration was detrimental to the purposes of the preserve.”6https://www.doioig.gov/sites/doioig.gov/files/BCNPforWEB.pdf; at 36-37. Any new acquisition effort should comply with the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 4601-4655, and should also comply with the land acquisition guidance provided in NPS Director’s Order 257https://www.nps.gov/policy/DOrders/DOrder25.htm issued in 2012. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Act authorizes the use of moneys appropriated from the fund for Federal purposes “for the acquisition of land, waters, or interests in land or waters” within units of the National Park System. An “interest” is something less than full ownership, such as mineral rights. We believe that acquisition of the oil and gas rights at Big Cypress is an appropriate use of LWCF funds and essential to the long-term health and conservation of the incredible resources found within the National Park System’s first national preserve, though other alternatives could be part of the acquisition solution as well.

The preserve’s enabling Act called for “the preservation, conservation, and protection of the natural, scenic, hydrologic, floral and faunal, and recreational values of the Big Cypress Watershed.” It also made clear that the Secretary must “limit or control” certain uses, e.g., motor vehicles and oil activities, as necessary and appropriate “to carry out the purposes of the Act.” A 2016 ruling8Nat’l Parks Conservation Ass’n v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior, 835 F.3d 1377 (11th Cir. 2016). by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that the Preserve is, in fact, subject to the “conservation mandate” of the NPS Organic Act; and soundly rejected NPS’s position that, as a preserve, Big Cypress could be managed under a lower standard of protection (i.e., a “multiple use” standard).

We support President Biden’s campaign promise of “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,”9https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/# and the President’s forward-looking climate initiatives, including any analysis of “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands.”10The White House, Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Section 208 (January 27, 2021) section 208. We believe that oil drilling inside Big Cypress National Preserve is exactly the type of harmful use that conflicts with the Interior Department and National Park Service’s stewardship responsibilities. Protecting the Preserve from oil drilling would better serve President Biden’s goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.

We greatly appreciate your consideration of these concerns.

 

 

cc:

Elizabeth Klein, Acting Deputy Secretary, Department of Interior
Jennifer Van der Heide, Chief of Staff, Department of Interior
Kate Kelley, Deputy Chief of Staff – Policy, Department of Interior
Stan Austin, Region 2 Regional Director, National Park Service
Tom Forsyth, Superintendent, Big Cypress National Preserve