We’re Defending a Rare Florida Wetland From Oil Drilling

We're in court to force the federal government to protect some of the most important wetlands in America.

Aerial view of the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida on October 13, 2021.
Aerial view of the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida on October 13, 2021. (Saul Martinez for Earthjustice)

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North of Everglades National Park, under Florida’s high-dome sky, a watery wilderness dotted with tree islands stretches across the flat landscape. This is Big Cypress National Preserve, an ancient chunk of real Florida where rare orchids grow, panthers prowl, and alligators slither in a waterlogged world fueled by tropical rain.

If you are a member of the Miccosukee Tribe, this is sacred land. But if you are a Texas oil company, this (like the rest of the planet) looks like a great place to drill.

The wild thing is, Burnett Oil Co. of Texas might just pull off its scheme to drill in this part of the Greater Everglades. The Environmental Protection Agency under former President Donald Trump paved the way by shirking its responsibility to protect Florida’s wetlands and handing it over to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration in 2020.

Florida developers had long called this state takeover their “Holy Grail,” because they can use their political influence to speed up development in environmentally sensitive areas. At Big Cypress, Burnett Oil is seeking state permits to destroy wetlands for drilling infrastructure and roads. The preserve is protected as part of our national parks system, but some of the mineral rights below ground are privately owned.

If DeSantis’ administration approves the permits, Florida regulators would be putting out a welcome mat for oil drillers in a state that’s already being inundated by rising seas from the climate crisis.

Earthjustice is in court to force the federal government to do its job. As an organization, we fight to end fossil fuel extraction, and in this case, we are doing that by working to protect some of the most important wetlands in America.

While we deploy the power of the law, the Miccosukee Tribe, which depends on the 729,000-acre preserve for medicine, recreation, food, and shelter, is using on-the ground activism to call attention to the threat to Big Cypress.

“‘Preserve’ means keeping it as pristine as possible,” says former Miccosukee Tribe Chairman Billy Cypress. “The unknowns are numerous, and you can’t take this back if there’s a mistake.”

A half century ago, a fight against developers created Big Cypress National Preserve. The land was the site of one of the most famous Florida environmental battles — one that helped spark some key environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Florida Water Resources Act, and the Florida Land Conservation Act.

In the late 1960s, developers planned what was billed as the world’s largest airport and runway there, situated between Miami and Naples. Like so many at the time, they considered the area a worthless swamp that needed draining.

The battle to stop the jetport ended in a 1974 settlement that created Big Cypress National Preserve — the first U.S. national preserve.

As a tradeoff, conservationists agreed to allow some then-existing land uses at Big Cypress that aren’t usually allowed in a conventional national park, including hunting, oil and gas extraction, off-roading, some private land ownership, cattle grazing, and traditional uses by the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes. These activities are only allowed if they aren’t detrimental to the preserve.

Big Cypress’ labyrinthine wetland forests and prairies hold ancient stories. Evidence of human activities in Big Cypress goes back 15,000 years, according to the National Park Service.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, members of various Indigenous North American tribes (later known as the Seminoles) were driven into the South Florida swamps during the United States’ shameful genocide. The Miccosukee Tribe split off from the Seminoles and was federally recognized in 1962; tribal members ply Big Cypress waters today.

Former Chairman Cypress wears a traditional patchwork stitched jacket and his voice is soft but urgent as he discusses the folly of allowing oil drilling in Big Cypress.

Previous forays into the area to look for oil and gas involved 33-ton “thumper” trucks that deeply damaged the wetlands – delicate habitats that are Florida’s lifeblood and its natural mojo. The vehicles left ruts that were almost two feet deep and up to 15 feet wide in places. Cypress calls it simply “violence” on the land.

“The impact is enormous and [more] than what it is worth drilling,” Cypress says, recalling how the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion fouled the Gulf of Mexico. “History speaks for itself.”

 This rare, biodiverse habitat is home to forests of dwarf pond cypress trees that are up to 2,500 years old. It is also home to imperiled birds like wood storks and Everglades snail kites, rare butterflies, reptiles, more than 30 orchid species (including the famous ghost orchids), and critically endangered Florida panthers.

At the same time the federal government gave Florida wetlands permitting authority, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it easier for developers building in wetlands to harm endangered and threatened species — like the Florida panthers that roam Big Cypress, which have dwindled in number to 230 or fewer — without repercussions.

 Since Florida took over, developers have rushed to submit a raft of permit applications to satisfy voracious building, property flipping, and other moneymaking schemes – with the Big Cypress National Preserve drilling proposal standing out as among the worst.

Under the unlawful state takeover, anyone objecting to a wetlands permit in Florida has lost protection under “the people’s environmental law” – the National Environmental Policy Act – because that law doesn’t apply to state permits.

And, now that the wetlands permitting program is out of federal control, tribes like the Miccosukee and the Seminole are denied important rights they had before – namely, the right to consult with the federal government under the National Historic Preservation Act during wetlands permit reviews.

Cypress says that if drilling goes forward, it will upend the Tribe’s traditional activities, from hunting for game to harvesting medicinal plants.

“It’s not good for the environment and may somehow extinct some of the plants or change the way of life for everyone, especially Miccosukee and also other Indian people,” Cypress says. “Not only Indians – it would affect everyone.”

In addition to sending water flowing into Everglades National Park, the hydrological network at Big Cypress Preserve recharges underground freshwater drinking supplies for millions.

“Once that water has been tarnished and damaged, then everybody feels the effects of it,” Cypress says.

Next stop: the courts. Earthjustice filed suit in January 2021 on behalf of seven groups: the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Miami Waterkeeper, and St. Johns Riverkeeper.

The suit challenges the EPA’s unlawful approval of the state wetlands permitting program and the way authority was transferred from federal agencies. Federal law allows states to administer their own wetlands permitting programs, but the state program has to be as protective as the federal Clean Water Act. This is not the case in Florida.

Before oil exploration and drilling can begin, the project will also need federal permits from the Department of the Interior. A Floridian now sits in a key Department of the Interior position: Shannon Estenoz, who shepherded Everglades restoration during the Obama administration and later helped lead the Everglades Foundation. She serves under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the agency.

“We are hoping that the Interior Department will do the right thing and stop this bad drilling project on the national preserve,” says Tania Galloni, managing attorney of Earthjustices’s Florida office. “At the same time, we’re in court working to stop EPA’s unlawful transfer of handing over wetlands permitting authority to the state of Florida. It’s clear that, to protect our wetlands, EPA should reverse this Trump administration giveaway to developers.”

In the Trump administration’s rushed process to allow Florida to take over wetlands permitting, the EPA provided the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes only three business days in November 2020 (over Thanksgiving weekend) to review and comment on a key agreement for tribal review of future state permits to build in wetlands.

The EPA finalized that agreement on December 22, 2020, over objections from several Tribes, including the Seminole and Miccosukee.

Since then, the Miccosukee Tribe has been among those trying to sound the alarm about the threat to Big Cypress. It has been active in Everglades protection efforts for decades, as South Florida’s rapacious development and industrial agriculture encroaches.

In April 2021, Miccosukee Tribe members Betty Osceola and the Rev. Houston Cypress led a protest walk through the tropical tangle that’s part of the proposed route for the oil drilling roads and pads.

“You don’t need more oil exploration and extraction in our protected sites, because we are a federal preserve, and it’s very disturbing to me that the feds turned over that permitting authority to the state of Florida,” Osceola, a Tribal Elder, told those assembled for the spring hike. “We need to put pressure on these elected officials.”

Since the Miccosukee Tribe walk, 13 members of Congress from Florida have written to the Biden administration to oppose the project. Some propose that the National Park Service buy the mineral rights and end the drilling threat once and for all.

The Biden administration is beginning to address harmful rollbacks of water protection standards and is pledging to serve communities affected by environmental injustice. Earthjustice and the Miccosukee will be pushing to make sure this happens.

To learn more about how to get involved in the effort to stop the oil drilling permit in Big Cypress, visit savebigcypress.org.

Julie Hauserman is an environmental writer and advocate who lives in Tallahassee, FL. She is a former national commentator on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and The Splendid Table. She has written for many publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, Family Circle, the Florida Phoenix, the Book of the Everglades, the Wild Heart of Florida, and Between Two Rivers. Her latest book, Drawn to the Deep, about National Geographic explorer/cave diver/photographer Wes Skiles, won a 2019 National Outdoors Book Award for biography.

The Florida regional office wields the power of the law to protect our waterways and biodiversity, promote a just and reliable transition to clean energy, and defend communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.