An unusual predicament is pitting private oil rights against one of the world’s most treasured places. Could the National Park Service allow a private energy company to build oil wells in the Everglades?
At Big Cypress National Preserve, a critical source of water for the greater Everglades ecosystem, the National Park Service has had to contend with a serious recurring threat ever since Congress established it in 1974 — private oil and gas drilling within the park's borders. Host Jennifer Errick explores the issue with guests Dr. Melissa Abdo, Fred Fagergren and John Donahue.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
Season One of The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by:
Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Beverley Stanton – Online Producer
Ismael Gama, Jr. – Creative Content Specialist
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org
Jennifer Errick: An unusual predicament is pitting private oil rights against one of the world's most treasured places. Could the National Park Service allow a private energy company to build oil wells in the Everglades? I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.
The Everglades is one of the nation's most treasured places. This truly wild ecosystem is lush, primeval and home to a stunning array of plants and animals. It's a place that feels both exotic and uniquely American, a subtropical paradise that advocate, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, once called a river of grass. Just north of Everglades National Park is a lesser known national preserve, Big Cypress that serves as a major source of water for the entire region. But at Big Cypress, the National Park Service has had to contend with a serious recurring threat ever since Congress established it in 1974, private oil and gas drilling within the Park's borders. The preserve contains two areas with active oil wells from decades ago. Now a private company from Texas, the Burnett Oil Company has applied for permits to build new wells in wild and undeveloped sites within the preserve, a severe threat to the landscape, the wildlife and the flow of water that nourishes the larger Everglades region.
Today, we're going to explore how something like this could happen in the first place, how a company would ever be allowed to drill inside the boundaries of a national park site, let alone one of the most famous and beloved ecosystems in the country. We're going to talk about the best way The Park Service could respond to the short-term threat. And we're going to ask what kind of long-term solution could solve the problem that has plagued the area for decades, if only we had the political will to fix it.
NPCA Suncoast Regional Director Dr. Melissa Abdo is someone who knows Big Cypress exceptionally well. Not only does she work there in her role with NPCA, she studied the biodiversity of the park 20 years ago with a team of scientists attempting to document every single plant species in the preserve down to each blade of grass. No small task in a 720,000 acre site. That's not quite, but nearly the size of Rhode Island.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: It certainly felt like a wonderful adventure, but also this weight of responsibility to do the work as best we could and really identify all those plant species. We were fortunate to discover new populations of plants inside the preserve. And we did run from alligators a couple of times, but you really don't have to run too fast because most of them are quite passive when they're not in areas where they're exposed to humans.
Jennifer Errick: Alligators aside, she still has fond memories of the experience years later.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: It impressed upon me how important it is to get to know a place, to get to know every single species of grass in that place. And it also impressed upon me that even in a place like South Florida that is full of development, that there are still discoveries to be made. And I think that's a wonderful impression for a young scientist to have.
Jennifer Errick: The preserve has a similar look and feel to Everglades National Park, but with distinct features that give it its own special charm.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: Overall, Big Cypress National Preserve is a part of what we refer to as the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. It's anchored by Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and even Biscayne National Park out to the east in South Florida. So it's anchored by these national parks and a number of other protected areas, including national wildlife refuges and other protected lands. There are also unique elements in Big Cypress where you'll find deeper Cypress sloughs and Cypress strands in areas than you would in an Everglades. So it's definitely worth visiting both park units.
Jennifer Errick: In fact, Big Cypress was the first national preserve in the United States, a designation the government created specifically to allow practices that aren't permitted in national parks, such as hunting, off-road vehicle use and oil and gas development. Big Cypress is one of only about 40 national park sites with an unusual ownership situation known as a split estate. The federal government owns the land above ground and private interests own mineral rights below the surface. At Big Cypress, the family of the late Barron Collier, a major landowner in Florida for whom Collier County is named, owns the rights to the oil underground. And over the years, the family has repeatedly looked for ways to profit from that oil. But the Park Service still has a legal mandate to leave the lands and waters above ground unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations, something that would appear nearly impossible at an industrial oil field.
I mean, how do you get something out of the ground without harming what's above it? In 2017 and 2018, the Collier family leased their mineral rights to the Burnett Oil Company to determine if oil could be drilled in new parts of the preserve using a procedure known as seismic testing. Seismic testing involves using giant trucks to send shockwaves through the ground to collect data on what is under the surface. NPCA sued to try to stop the testing and lost. And the 30-ton vehicles created extensive damage lumbering through miles of mud, clearing vegetation, leaving deep ruts in the swamp, and killing mature trees and rare plants. Here's Dr. Abdo again, speaking about some of the damage we saw as a result of that testing in just one part of the preserve known as Nobles Grade, a remote wildlife rich area.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: We're still today seeing the scars of that oil exploration across the landscape. And those scars are even visible from the air. What we do know is that the damages and impacts occurred within approximately 110 miles of the preserve just in the Nobles Grade area and what that damage looked like is essentially putting what we call seismic lines through otherwise predominantly pristine wetlands and areas of the preserve using these massive industrial vehicles that are called Vibroseis vehicles. And so they traversed this again previously very much pristine part of the preserve and they're even videos online where you can see these vehicles mowing down dwarf cypress trees. Some of those trees could be hundreds of years old. So this was real serious damage that occurred in this 110 mile area of the preserve.
Jennifer Errick: Now the Burnett Oil Company is applying for permits to build new well sites in two entirely undeveloped parts of the preserve. The new wells, if approved would be sited near Miccosukee tribal land and habitat for federally protected animals, including critically endangered Florida panthers and Florida bonneted bats, the rarest bat species in the state. And of course, building new roads and infrastructure anywhere in the preserve would create serious concerns for its swamps, it's plant life and the sensitive flow of fresh water to the larger Everglades ecosystem. Fred Fagergren was the first superintendent of Big Cypress National Preserve from 1981 to 1991, and he helped write the guiding document on how to protect its natural resources, a document known as the General Management Plan. Before Fagergren was hired there was only minimal oversight of the preserve by a handful of staff and virtually no research into how the park's sensitive ecology and rare and endangered species would be affected by oil and gas drilling.
In his role as superintendent, Fagergren could regulate most activities to be compatible with the protection of the preserve. For example, he stopped local hunters from harvesting rare snails because they couldn't show that their actions would not harm the overall snail population. To prevent oil and gas drilling, however, the onus was on the Park Service to prove that the activity was detrimental, a higher standard and a bar that was challenging to meet without solid research on the natural features of the area. Here's Fagergren describing the experience.
Fred Fagergren: We were trying to minimize everything we could, but we didn't have a lot of data. This has been the start of when geographical information systems were just becoming available for the National Park Service and computer systems were available. And we started identifying all these sensitive resources within the preserve, cypress strands, hardwood hammocks, waterfall, the water quality, all these things that we had them develop the data so that we would be able to make good decisions. And that eventually led to a lot of what ended up in the General Management Plan. But initially it was very little of that information available. We had to go out on the ground and figure out where the water was flowing and try to deal with those case by case.
Jennifer Errick: Fagergren spent the first few years of his term as superintendent responding to development proposals in a piecemeal fashion, unable to address the cumulative effects oil and gas drilling was having on the preserve. In the mid 1980s, however, a proposal from Shell Oil met that higher detrimental standard in his opinion and he initiated a process for a thorough analysis known as an Environmental Impact Statement, a more in-depth process than the simpler and faster review known as an environmental assessment.
Fred Fagergren: Shell Oil came in and proposed almost 500 miles of lines that they wanted to run crisscrossing all over the preserve. We were faced with a much more difficult situation. We went through the process and as superintendent, I recommended that we could only proceed if an environmental impact statement was done, that would comprehensively examine all of the accumulated impacts. A meeting was held and the National Park Service was told we must only do an environmental assessment and it should be completed quickly and approved. A lawsuit was filed by environmental groups. At that point, the Interior turned to the Justice Department. The Justice Department refused to represent the Assistant Secretary of the Interior. They then turned to the solicitors of the Department of Interior. They refused to represent the assistant secretary too. At this point, the Park Service was told they could proceed with an environmental impact statement and Shell Oil Company dropped the proposal.
Jennifer Errick: Fagergren was able to protect the preserve and develop both the data and the General Management Plan to better assess future harm to Big Cypress. But the threat didn't go away. After all, the ability to drill within the preserve is written clearly into the legislation that established it.
John Donahue: The language says that you shall allow the use and enjoyment of oil and gas in the preserve. I used to joke that I not only have to allow it, but I have to make sure they enjoy it.
Jennifer Errick: That's John Donahue, who also served as superintendent of Big Cypress from 2000 to 2003, and who faced similar challenges protecting the preserve. Although he jokes about the right to use and enjoy the preserves oil, his legal obligation was to consider proposals from the Collier family to determine whether the government could allow drilling without causing detrimental harm to its lands and waters, a concept that would seem all but impossible with the infrastructure and technology necessary. Yet, in 2001, the Collier family proposed seismic testing to look for oil, similar to what Burnett Oil Company actually did in 2017 and 2018, but using a different form of technology, blasting the ground with pockets of dynamite, instead of enormous trucks. The proposal was released to the public just as an annual conference by a group called The Everglades Coalition was about to begin.
John Donahue: As it happened, it was released essentially a day before the Everglades Coalition meeting. And I can tell you that the comments started coming in fast and furious. I think we had a couple of fax machines blow up and go on fire. The public was usually upset about the entire concept at the time.
Jennifer Errick: Fortunately Big Cypress had political allies in influential places.
John Donahue: President George W. Bush had come down to the Everglades and he and his brother and superintendent of the Everglades Maureen Finnerty took a helicopter ride over the Everglades and over Big Cypress. And I do know that the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush at the time, said to the new president, his brother, that it didn't make any sense to be drilling for oil at Big Cypress, when in fact we were spending billions of dollars to preserve and restore the Everglades and 40 to 60% of the water in the Everglades comes from Big Cypress.
Jennifer Errick: And the opposition to the plan didn't stop there.
John Donahue: Yeah. I can tell you, I was called to Washington and it was ironic to be sitting there with a whole group of important administration people who had all come from either oil or coal companies and them saying to me, "Can't you stop this?"
Jennifer Errick: Donahue was obligated to consider the Collier's proposal, but he also wanted a permanent solution to protect the preserve.
John Donahue: We proposed and the Bush administration decided to move forward with the acquisition of the mineral rights. And they eventually offered $120 million to buy 51% of all of the rights that the Colliers held, the Collier Oil Company. That got derailed and waylaid because $120 million, some people felt it was too much money. Some people believed that the oil drilling wouldn't take place for a variety of reasons. They didn't like the quality of the oil. And the value of oil changes on a daily basis, probably an hourly basis. But the way I looked at it as the steward of the preserve was that if you buy the oil and gas rights and you control the oil and gas rights, there's nothing but benefit for the people of the United States. First of all, there's no threat to the sheet flow across the Everglades. There's no threat to the wildlife. There's no threat to the endangered species. And the oil continues to be a reserve in the ground if and when there are ever extractive possibilities that don't cause harm to the environment. So I thought it was a pretty much a win-win.
Jennifer Errick: Ultimately the parties didn't come to an agreement and the whole process got sidelined during Donahue's term as superintendent, but the Collier family was willing to negotiate to sell these rights, and Donahue is convinced that the government should continue to pursue them.
John Donahue: So as oil, like other limited resources begin to disappear, the value of that oil will only go up. And as the owner of the rights, the United States can determine if and when it ever gets extracted. Now, 20 years later almost, we're looking at the same proposals again. So I would say, from my point of view, the acquisition of the mineral rights, at least the majority ownership, is the only way to resolve this problem. Otherwise, we'll be looking at it again in 10 years, 20 years, a hundred years from now.
Jennifer Errick: And what is the oil even worth? The sources I spoke with described it as low quality, but long producing, meaning the same well could continue pumping slowly for decades on end, but there's such a small quantity of it overall that the industry contributes very little to the state economy, unlike the tourism industry and local fisheries. Here again is Dr. Melissa Abdo.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: The preserve itself supports more than 1000 jobs and it provides millions of dollars and benefits to local communities. It supports recreation. And then if we look downstream from Big Cypress, the preserves waters that flow through are vital to Southwestern Florida fishing communities and the estuaries that support the vital fishing on that coast. So when we look at the big picture of the tiny and meager gains to be had from the oil extraction inside Big Cypress, even looking through that lens, it does not warrant allowing this to continue because it doesn't make economic sense either.
Jennifer Errick: Meanwhile, the threats to Big Cypress and the Everglades are severe.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: The new proposal to carry out oil drilling inside the preserve, what it could spell for the preserve is it could spell new oil wells and the associated land clearing, equipment storage, wetlands filling. We're talking hydrologic alterations, access roads, drilling rigs, storage tanks, fuel tanks. The list goes on and in terms of effects and damage to the ecosystem, when we are thinking of the Everglades and we talk about hydrologic alteration, erosion, sedimentation, and potential oil spill, those are all very serious potential risks that this new proposal could lead to.
Jennifer Errick: According to Donahue the drilling itself, isn't even the most serious threat.
John Donahue: I think the most difficult and most harmful part of the entire extractive uses whether it's oil or something else is the infrastructure that has to be created in order to make it happen. So in the roads that have to be built in order to drill for oil and to transport that oil, that's where you interrupt the sheet flow across the Big Cypress and you cause inevitable damage to the entire ecosystem.
Jennifer Errick: And ultimately it's taxpayers who are subsidizing the destruction of this national park site.
John Donahue: The National Park Service is talking about creating access to areas that are still pristine because you couldn't get there even with the swamp buggy, even with an airboat. Essentially they were protected by mother nature or whatever entity you believe in. And now the National Park Service would spend taxpayer money to diminish the quality of those resources. Nature's essentially made these areas wilderness, and we would spend taxpayer money to diminish that wilderness and bring vehicles into that area. That makes no sense at all.
Jennifer Errick: Abdo and many others are calling on the Park Service to conduct a full assessment of the potential harm to the preserve, an environmental impact statement, to show that the use is detrimental, that higher standard required by law to prevent oil and gas drilling.
Dr. Melissa Abdo: The Park Service should absolutely look to better understanding and analyzing the impacts of this oil and gas proposal on the hydrology of the preserve, the water quality. What about the soundscape of the preserve and what about recreation and visitors that seek quiet and tranquility in the preserve? How will they be impacted? How will all the endangered species be impacted? All of that needs to be very carefully looked at in detail and analyzed, and the public needs to have access to those detailed analyses so that we can make informed opinions and have an informed voice to speak up against these threats.
Jennifer Errick: Fred Fagergren agrees, likening the current situation to the one he faced way back in the mid-1980s.
Fred Fagergren: Why are we not pursuing an environmental impact statement the same way we did before? The justification was there, the rationale was appropriate and the General Management Plan would have supported it. Anyone who's seen pictures of where those trucks went with the seismic couldn't deny that not only was there inadequate monitoring, but impacts that should have been avoided completely before that ever occurred, have now occurred. At least my impression that there's not been a close adherence to the General Management Plan and protection of the resources, to the extent it could be under the laws.
Jennifer Errick: As we record this episode in June 2021, we don't know whether the Park Service will require this full environmental impact statement to address the threat and presumably stop it in its tracks. Again, we do know however that whatever happens in the short term, the Collier family and its contractors and agents have a legal right to keep trying to get the oil out of the ground, unless, and until the government acquires those rights. The Bush administration was at the table with millions of dollars ready to negotiate before the process was scuttled 20 years ago. Could the Biden administration find similar determination and funding to save one of the country's greatest natural treasures? We have so much to lose in an environment that is literally irreplaceable. In the words of park champion, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth. Remote, never wholly known nothing anywhere else is like them.” John Donahue puts a slightly different spin on it.
John Donahue: I will leave you with one thought. The ORV users used to say to me, "It's not a park, it's a preserve." And I would say to them, "Well think of it. The word is preserve."
Jennifer Errick: Big Cypress National Preserve. It's right there in the name, if we can just live up to it once and for all.
The Secret Lives Of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association episode two, Below The Surface was produced by Todd Cicada Whisperer Christopher and me, Jennifer Errick, with moral and technical support from Bev Stanton and Ismael Gama Jr. Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Learn more at thesecretlivesofparks.org. For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations with more than 1.6 million members and supporters and PCA is the nation's only independent, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. And we're proud of it, too. The Secret Lives of Parks is overseen by Amy Hagovsky, who learned we were producing a podcast and said,
John Donahue: I not only have to allow it, I have to make sure they enjoy it.
Jennifer Errick: You can join the fight to protect places like Big Cypress National Preserve. Learn more and join us at npca.org.