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ORVs to be restricted at Big Cypress

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MIAMI — Swamp buggies, air boats and other off-road vehicles that have carved out ruts in the sprawling Big Cypress National Preserve would have to stick to designated trails under a new federal plan.

The plan, which the government was expected to announce Monday, will be implemented over five years at a cost of up to $10 million.

It has drawn complaints from outdoor enthusiasts who say they are being shut out of the preserve they lobbied to create. But environmentalists say the new rules will protect the wetland prairies and critical habitats for endangered plants and animals.

"It looks like plowed Iowa cornfields. There are ruts as far as you can see," said Brian Scherf, board member of the Florida Biodiversity Project. "This is a national preserve, not a national off-road vehicle playground."

The preserve was created in 1974 at the edge of Everglades National Park. Its 729,000 acres are home to more than 90 animal and plant species designated for federal and state protection.

The land is used for hunting, trapping and off-road recreation.

Over the years, nearly 30,000 miles of trails have been left by off-road vehicles. The tires have chewed up the mat of algae, the base of the food chain that eventually feeds wood storks, Florida panthers and other animals.

The ruts also block the flow of water to the Everglades.

In April, the park was included for the second year in a row on a list of 10 federal parks considered the most threatened from such things as overcrowding, air pollution and urban sprawl. The list was compiled by the National Park and Conservation Association, a private park advocacy group.

About 2,250 off-road vehicle owners have federal permits to ride in Big Cypress. Those who are cited twice for ignoring the new rules will lose their permits.

On the Net: Preserve: www.nps.gov/bicy