Big Cypress National Preserve is a United States National Preserve located in southern Florida, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Miami. The Big Cypress, along with Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, became the first national preserves in the United States National Park System when they were established on October 11, 1974..
Big Cypress borders the wet freshwater prairies of Everglades National Park to the south, and other state and federally protected cypress country in the west, with water from the Big Cypress flowing south and west into the coastal Ten Thousand Islands region of Everglades National Park. When Everglades National Park was established in 1947, Big Cypress was originally intended to be included; however, because the land had not been purchased from its private owners, Big Cypress was ultimately released from the park system.
Ecologically, the preserve is slightly more elevated than the western Everglades, and Big Cypress has historically served as home to Native Americans, including the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes, as well as early settlers who hunted herons and egrets to supply feathers to hat-makers in New York and Paris, and poachers who hunted alligators and crocodiles to near extinction. The timber industry also operated in the area, and built railroads to haul out most of the cypress ecosystem's old growth trees.
Big Cypress differs from Everglades National Park in that the Miccosukee and Seminole people have permanent rights to occupy and use the land, that the Native Americans and hunters may use off-road vehicles, and home and business owners have been permitted to keep their properties. As in Everglades National Park, oil exploration was permitted within Big Cypress, but plans are under way to buy out the remaining oil leases.
In the 1960s, Native Americans, hunters, and conservationists succeeded at fighting an effort to move Miami International Airport's international flights to a new airport in the Big Cypress area, and then campaigned to put Big Cypress back into the National Parks System. Although construction of the new airport had already begun, it was stopped after one runway was completed, and it is now known as the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport.
The preserve is the most biologically diverse region of the terrestrial Everglades, and while dominated by a wet cypress forest is host to an array of flora and fauna, including mangroves, orchids, alligators, venomous snakes like the cottonmouth and Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a variety of birds, and the Florida Panther.
The preserve is also home to nine federally listed endangered species including the West Indian manatee, the eastern indigo snake, and the Florida sandhill crane.
A number of campgrounds in Big Cypress are tailored to motor vehicles, where tourists planning overnight stays can park their vehicles and ORVs in designated areas. The southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail is located in Big Cypress, and provides hiking opportunities during the winter months. For nature lovers who don't mind getting their feet wet, hiking throughout Big Cypress is enjoyable in all seasons, with most of the cypress country more hospitable to hikers than the dense sawgrass prairies of the central Everglades. Some of the most beautiful wading and walking can be found in cypress strands and prairies between the Loop Road and the Tamiami Trail. Because alligators are numerous and often large, wading through the cypress country requires constant alertness.
Touted as a "recreational paradise" by the Department of the Interior, Big Cypress was created in part to accommodate access with off-road vehicles (ORVs) by the hunters and the Miccosukee and Seminole people who had worked to protect Big Cypress from drainage and development. However, scientists and conservationists have noted an increase in destructive ORV recreation that forced the National Park Service in 2001 to restrict ORVs to of trails within the preserve, despite persistent calls for more from hunters and ORV enthusiasts.
According to a 2001 study conducted by the United States Geological Survey, "ORV use in Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY) has impacted wildlife populations and habitats through modifications to water flow patterns (direction and velocity) and water quality, soil displacement and compaction, direct vegetation damage, disturbance to foraging individuals, and, ultimately, overall suitability of habitats for wildlife."
The National Parks Conservation Association has also called Big Cypress "the blighted poster child of what can go wrong when ORVs rather than park managers take the driver's seat." ORV critics such as Wildlife Advocacy Project have said that the existing 23,000+ miles of legal and illegal trails in Big Cypress are "enough to encircle the planet, and 20 times more than the Park Service’s own (one time) estimate of ."
Despite this, park officials generated controversy in 2006 after announcing a to new study to determine whether the recreational benefit of more trails is worth the risk of additional damage to the ecosystem.