A bike path across the Everglades, even a green one intended to do little damage to the fragile ecosystem, is drawing fire from a group of indigenous people and other critics who say the proposed 76-mile long ribbon of asphalt is an insult to them and nature.
“It opens the door to more development in the Everglades,” said Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee Tribe, which lives in the Glades. “Once you give them that door and open it, they’re going to walk right on through and keep opening more and more doors. It won’t stop.”
Osceola and Bobby Billie, leader of the Panther Clan of the Miccosukee Simanolee Nation, who lives in the Big Cypress Preserve, are leading a weeklong protest march along the proposed biking and hiking route adjacent to Tamiami Trail. Plans call for a 12- to 14-foot-wide path that would stretch from the rural fringe of Miami-Dade to Collier County.
On Wednesday, day four of a walk expected to end Thursday at the Miccosukee Resort casino along Krome Avenue, about 20 protesters walked silently — “to hear nature and hear it speak to us,” said marcher Karen Dwyer — while stepping over beer cans and plastic bottles that littered the right of way.
“We’re seeing this as a desecration,” said Houston Cypress, a member of the Miccosukee Otter Clan and an organizer of a group called the Love the Everglades Movement. “It’s so invasive. Why not use resources already in place?”
Plans for the River of Grass Greenway have slowly gained traction in the eight years since a group of Naples cyclists suggested installing a paved path to link the coasts and provide a more intimate look at the vast wilderness. In 2009, the National Park Service won a $1.5 million grant and asked Miami-Dade County to take over planning.
Ironically, the path was touted as a way to open up the Everglades without leaving a heavy footprint.
“It’s really a jewel of the area and nobody sees it except at 60 mph,” said Joe Webb, a project manager for Miami-Dade County’s parks department.
But what may seem like a sliver of asphalt from Miami’s crowded skyline looks like another highway to residents who live along one of the area’s few paved roads.
“It is a huge thing. It’s just another scar on the land,” said David Shealy, who owns the Trail Lakes Campground where he operates the Swamp Ape Research Center. He dates his family’s arrival in the area to the 1890s.
Even with a feasibility study expected to wrap up this summer, planners say they are far from constructing the path and have yet to secure the money for design and construction. The estimated cost of the project has increased from about $75 million to as much as $140 million, according to a January presentation by Miami-Dade’s parks department. Among other things, the study will look at existing conditions and determine whether a trail is compatible. The study will also identify environmental concerns — a matter of particular concern to Everglades National Park.
“We generally support this in concept, but believe important questions remain to be answered,” Superintendent Pedro Ramos said in an email.
Planners say the path could lessen damaging road traffic while opening up the central Everglades, the heart of the ecosystem where wetland marshes give way to tall stands of trees draped in moss in the Big Cypress Preserve. Eventually, the county hopes the path will connect to a proposed 500-mile network of bike paths that would include Biscayne National Park. The Tamiami stretch would connect a number of popular spots including the Shark Valley loop, the Turner River Canoe Trail, the Fakahatchee Strand as well as Miccosukee and Seminole tribal lands.
Osceola and others worry — wrongly so, Webb says — that the path would bring electricity and therefore more development to a remote area largely protected by the national park territory and state conservation land. Driving west on the trail in Miami-Dade County, the only businesses in sight are a half dozen airboat and tourist stops. They also fear the path would interfere with Everglades restoration work to repair water flow south.
But Webb said part of the plan looks at how the path would work with restoration efforts and calls for it to be built in the right-of-way that runs alongside the Tamiami Trail or on nearby levees.
“We understand the sensitivity,” he said. “Our little path is secondary.”