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Hike, rally draw attention to oil exploration concerns in Big Cypress National Preserve

A group of protestors show off their signs near mile marker 63 off of Interstate 75 on April 10, 2021. (Courtesy Shaa-Nutch Billie)

About 50 conservation-minded individuals rallied and hiked through the Big Cypress National Preserve on April 10 to protest the proposed construction of an oil pad for exploration of oil in the Mullet Slough area of the preserve.

The group, consisting of Native Americans and non-tribal folks, walked past an area it said was damaged in 2017 when Texas-based Burnett Oil commenced exploration. The five-hour, eight-mile hike went about two miles north of it to where the next oil pad is slated be built.

“The area still hasn’t recovered from the activity in 2015 to 2017,” said environmentalist and activist Betty Osceola (Miccosukee), who led the hike. “You can see the damage in satellite photos on Google Earth. It looks like a big old square. It will be an industrial complex when they put in the pad and rig for the oil operation.”

Houston Cypress, co-organizer of the event, said the hikers felt at home in the preserve and connected to it spiritually. Some said it was their first hike in the Everglades and they were impressed by the beauty of the natural landscape.

“People had a profound experience out there,” Cypress said. “They went off trail and followed the tracks of Burnett’s oil exploration. Burnett brought in trucks and in the process they damaged the terrain by leaving humongous tracks and cut down cypress trees.”

Osceola was pleasantly surprised by the size of the group that signed up for the long hike in the hot, humid Florida weather. The potential for disaster is among the primary concerns of the group.

“Mullet Slough is a natural route for water to flow into the preserve,” Osceola said. “Right in the middle of the slough, an oil company will be working. Think about if there is a spill and contamination. Right now the water is pristine; what happens if there is a spill?”

Seminole teenager Valholly Frank has been an environmentalist all her life. She spoke at the United Nations climate change conference in Madrid, Spain, last year and is one of eight young plaintiffs who sued the state. They claim the state violated their constitutional rights by perpetuating an energy system based on fossil fuels. The health of the Everglades has always been one of her main concerns.

The group hikes through the Big Cypress National Preserve on April 10, 2021, to protest more oil exploration and drilling in the pristine area. (Courtesy photo)

Frank, daughter of Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank and Rhonda Roff, spoke at the rally after the hikers returned to mile marker 63 off Interstate 75, just a few miles from her home reservation of Big Cypress. She lamented that it felt all too normal to once again be fighting for the land.

“I can’t wrap my head around the fact that money is more important than us,” she said. “Florida shouldn’t enable these fossil fuel companies to come into our land, our home and destroy it. Nobody owns this air, this water, you can’t put a price on life. You can’t sell what people need to live.”

Frank, 18, said humans are the problem, but must also be the solution. She encouraged everyone to fight together against climate change, oil drilling and pipelines.

“When people said they felt at home when they were on the hike, it really struck a chord with me because this is my home. It was home to my ancestors and I feel a strong connection to this land,” said Frank, a senior at Sagemont School in Weston. “The U.S. government has already tried to kill off my people. They came in and tried to commit genocide on our people. When we survived, they gave us the scraps they didn’t want. Now they are coming in because they drained their land and are trying to take what we have. We care more about people than profit. That’s the message we have to relay, that people and animals are far more important that any money you can make from more oil.”

When the preserve was established by Congress in 1974, Seminole and Miccosukee people were given permanent rights to occupy and use the land in traditional ways. They were also granted the first rights to develop income-producing businesses related to the resources of the preserve, such as guided tours.

However, the preserve’s original authorizing legislation also allows for exploration and extraction of oil, gas and minerals. The legislation states its minerals management office will ensure, consistent with the purposes for which the preserve was established, “timely consideration of and final action on applications for the exploration or development and production of non-Federal oil and gas rights located beneath the surface of the lands within the boundaries of the Big Cypress National Preserve.”

The mineral rights under the preserve’s land are privately held by the Collier Resources Co.


Protestors march April 10, 2021, to show their concern for the environment off I-75 in Collier County. (Courtesy photo)

The deadline for the preserve’s action on Burnett’s application is May 12 after which there will be a 30-day public comment period. Then it will go to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

Burnett’s applications for dredge and fill permits for two proposed drilling sites have not been approved yet. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave final approval responsibility to the FDEP in December 2020, under the Clean Water Act’s Section 404.

“The FDEP is woefully underprepared and underfunded,” Osceola said. “We realize the public isn’t aware of what is going on and the preserve hasn’t been forthcoming with the (Miccosukee) tribe about what the applications look like.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and the National Resource Defense Council both oppose Burnett’s applications. The NRDC submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the National Park Service (NPS) during the Trump administration seeking information about the company’s drilling plans in the preserve. Osceola said the NPS has not fulfilled those requests.

Speaking at the rally, Alison Kelly, NRDC senior attorney, discussed the impact of the drilling Burnett performed in 2017. She said the seismic lines caused by its 33-ton vehicles as they drove through the land are still visible and significant damage was done to the wetlands and panther habitats.

“The company now has apparently come back in to apply for state and federal permits to construct new oil wells and access roads,” Kelly said. “One in the area we walked today, where there is no existing infrastructure. This is not a place to industrialize. This place provides at least 40 percent of the water to Everglades National Park and it provides refuge for all of us, including plants and animals. What they are proposing is to industrialize this area for a period of at least 30 years.”

With climate change causing sea level rise, Kelly said this is not the time to exacerbate the crisis by industrializing the preserve. She believes Burnett’s applications should be denied and outlined how everyone can get involved in the fight against it. She encouraged the rally attendees to send comments to FDEP secretary Noah Valenstein, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services secretary Nikki Fried, the NPS, as well as local, state and federal elected officials including representatives and senators. She said they should also contact preserve superintendent Tom Forsyth and Everglades National Park superintendent Pedro Ramos. The crowd cheered when Kelly told them to contact Department of the Interior secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.

Betty Osceola, left, and Houston Cypress speak at the rally following the hike through the Big Cypress National Preserve to protest more oil exploration and drilling. (Courtesy photo)

“Even though the minerals and oil are privately owned, the NPS oversees the preserve on behalf of the federal government,” Kelly said. “So this land belongs to us, the Native Americans who were here before us and the animals and plants. They have to hear our voices. Let’s all write letters and get this done.”

Osceola agreed that people need to put a lot of pressure on Congress to do the right thing. She advises them to go on Twitter, since that is the platform on which politicians tend to communicate.

“As a Miccosukee, I am supposed to be able to go to my historic Indian camp, any tribal member is,” Osceola said. “Building roads and pads takes that right away from the tribes. People on the hike and at the rally were appalled and upset that the areas would be destroyed, but they weren’t surprised by it. They wanted to know how to put a stop to it.”

In the days after the rally, Osceola reflected on the work that remains to be done.

“It’s always a long road to travel when you’re trying to prevent desecration of your tribal land, educate the public, state and public officials on tribal sovereignty and trying to live in harmony with the environment,” she said. “It’s always a daily mission and sometimes a struggle. Every day tribal sovereignty is being attacked. I refuse to give up.”

Valholly Frank speaks at the rally April 10, 2021. (Courtesy photo)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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