A group of concerned citizens gathered in Big Cypress National Preserve on April 10, 2021, for "Signs Across the Alley", a six-hour hike and rally to raise awareness about a Texas oil company's plan to drill in Big Cypress. (Courtesy of Alison Kelly)

On an early April morning last year, Betty Osceola, a member of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, led a group of 50 people through the marshy swamp of South Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve for six hours. The 729,000-acre preserve has long held recreational and sacred sites for the Miccosukee people. They harvest plants for medicine and food, and community members are buried at the preserve, but it could soon become an oil drilling site by the Texas company Burnett Oil. 

Osceola and 50 participants trudged through the sticky mud along miles of deep ruts created in 2017 and 2018 by Burnett Oil vibroseis vehicles during their seismic survey to explore oil drilling in a 12,000-foot-deep exploration well in the wetlands until they finally reached the proposed drilling site. When they arrived at one of the two proposed drilling sites, Osceola paused for a moment of “deep listening” for intuitive conversations with the land forming a visceral connection. Deep listening, Houston Cypress, who is on the Miccosukee Environmental Advisory Committee and spoke during the rally, said, can open up a greater understanding, care, and appreciation for the environment in the face of drilling and destruction, which could critically harm their community, the plants, and animals that directly feed from it, disrupting the local ecosystem. 

The hike was the first part of a day-long rally called “Signs Across the Alley,” to raise awareness about the damage Burnett Oil has already done to the wetlands and educate the community about their pending drilling permits in an effort to stop them. After the six-hour hike, participants walked to Alligator Alley, otherwise known as 1-75, a highway running east to west in southern Florida, cutting through the Everglades’ natural water flow. Osceola led the group in a chant, and they lined up along the road holding signs and large banners calling to “defend the sacred.”

“It was awe-inspiring to see so many people,” said Cypress. “Since people are seeing it firsthand, they get a really visceral connection to the land. Whether that’s listening with their ears or their eyes, or even how their feet feel as they walk on the ground.”

Cypress is one of many Indigenous people speaking out amid an intense fight to preserve the sacred land the Miccosukee and Seminole people care for. Burnett Oil has until next month to address environmental impacts and propose a mitigation strategy after mounting pressure convinced the state Department of Environmental Protection to question their commitment to running a clean operation. Oil and gas regulatory violations are harming a growing number of Indigenous communities across the country including the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Acoma. If the state of Florida approves the permit, it would contradict the present administration’s anti-drilling stance. But, the decision to drill in Big Cypress is out of the federal government’s hands.

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Donald Trump handed over control of Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act to the Florida state government with the conservative and developer-friendly administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis responsible for protecting and preserving the state’s critical wetlands. Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, filed a lawsuit on behalf of conservation groups to stop the EPA’s decision, which they said takes wetland restoration out of the hands of stringent federal protection and into the hands of state law that rests on unprecedented arrangements. In January 2021, following the EPA’s decision, Burnett Oil Company filed for state permits to construct oil well pads and access roads in the preserve where the Collier family privately owns the mineral rights below ground. Known as one of the richest families in America, the Colliers have been oil drilling in Florida for over 80 years.

Environmental advocates and Indigenous people are concerned the drilling will hinder the Western Everglades Restoration Project to restore water flow and connect the Big Cypress Preserve to the Everglades’ river of grass after decades of levies and dividing roads obstructed water’s natural movement. They say the drilling will destroy the wetlands by paving over acres of wildlife and diverting water into ruts in the process instead of letting it circulate. 

“The last time [Burnett Oil] was out there, they did not clean up after themselves,” Cypress said.

A group of 50 concerned citizens hiked for six hours in Big Cypress National Preserve on April 10, 2021, along the tire marks left by a Texas oil company’s vehicle during a previous exploration survey. Indigenous activists say the drilling will destroy sacred sites. (Courtesy of Alison Kelly)

According to a Quest Ecology report from October 2020, Burnett Oil Company Inc.’s permitted phase one seismic surveys in 2017 and 2018 created 101 miles of “pathways” (seismic lines), and since then, they say the company has not sufficiently addressed the “major concerns.” The report recounts that dwarf cypress trees, which can range in age from 31 to 2,500 years and provide roosting sites for birds and other wildlife, were observed in less than 1% of the seismic line when they usually make up 50% of the plant cover in adjacent undisturbed habitats. 

“Burnett Oil said they run a clean operation, but when we look at their past records in Big Cypress from a few years ago, it doesn’t fit with the reality of what they have left,” Cypress said. 

In November 2021, the National Park Service proposed a plan to require Burnett Oil to restore wetlands damaged by its exploratory oil and gas activity at the preserve. According to the NPS, more than 111 miles, or 201 acres of land, was harmed. Under the plan, they would be required to regrade ruts and ditches, remove invasive plants, and plant more native trees in the area. In late December 2021, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the park service to use its “broad legal authority” to stop the proposed drilling. 

After mounting pressure from environmental and Indigenous advocates, Burnett Oil submitted changes to the initial permit application last month. The Florida Department of Environmental Protections reviewers said more information on remediation and mitigation strategies will be needed before the state can proceed with its review. 

“The ongoing changes in project design and mitigation proposals presents a significant challenge to [DEP’s] ability to review and assess the permitting criteria,” wrote DEP attorney Megan Mills in a Dec. 22 letter to Burnett Oil. “If reasonable assurances that the permitting criteria have been adequately addressed to support the issuance of a permit are not provided in the next response, your application may be denied.” 

According to the DEP letter, Burnett Oil has until Feb. 22 to respond.

“I definitely hope that the applications are denied,” Cypress said. “The Miccosukee and Seminole people have a number of sacred sites out there. And one of the locations is very close to the Miccosukee federal Indian reservation so we’re concerned that any spill that might occur above ground or underground would negatively impact our territory and the areas that we have authority over.”

Going forward, Cypress hopes that authority over wetland protection returns to the federal government, the Burnett Oil permit is denied, and that government officials follow Indigenous leadership.

“We have very strong water quality standards,” Cypress said. “Anything we can do to support [the Seminole and Miccosukee leadership] efforts, their conservation policies, and their science is going to be beneficial.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...