Torpedoed on the Tamiami Trail

Long a staple of the Everglades tourist's itinerary, the airboat tour takes a direct hit from the feds

Jesse Kennon throttles down on his airboat, reducing the engine to a gurgle and slowing the craft to a standstill. The sun is masked by a layer of gray-white clouds, and the Everglades unfurl on all sides, vast, inscrutable, and serene.

"There's Romeo," Kennon announces, waving at a giant alligator napping on a mud bank just a few feet from the boat. "As cold as he is, he's not going to move, otherwise he'd come over and eat a marshmallow." The 54-year-old airboat-tour operator has nicknamed most of the local gators. After a lifetime of maneuvering his homemade vessel through the marshlands, he knows them by sight.

Ever since froggers first attached an automobile engine and a giant propeller to the stern of a flat-bottomed skiff, men like Kennon have made the Everglades their home. The contraption allows effortless access to the soggy savannah of sawgrass and strangler figs, orchids and alligators, great white herons and Florida gar. For more than 70 years the Glades represented a way of life for a few thousand hardy souls drawn by the abundant wildlife, plentiful fishing, and solitude.

But those days are almost over. The land is being purchased by the National Park Service's Land Acquisition Office, and henceforth access will be strictly controlled. Kennon and his wife Sally, who own Coopertown, one of the three remaining airboat tour concessions along the Tamiami Trail east of the Miccosukee Reservation, are on the verge of being bought out, though he vows to fight the deal.

The three airboat concessionaires' tracts, several dozen acres in all, are considered top-priority purchases under the Everglades Protection and Expansion Act. Approved in 1989, the federal legislation represents one of the first major steps toward reversing decades of environmental degradation caused by contamination from agricultural runoff, pollution, unnatural water flow, development, and the introduction of exotic plant and animal species.

The act calls for the addition of approximately 107,000 acres of the eastern half of Shark Slough to Everglades National Park, which will bring the park's size to 1.4 million acres -- about 2200 square miles. By acquiring the land, the government forestalls future development schemes and allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin modifying the existing system of canals and levees in order to restore the natural flow of water.

The land is owned by a hodgepodge of people, corporations, development companies, and businesses. Some of the owners are gullible investors who were scammed into purchasing the swampland by hucksters in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Kennon says people periodically turn up and ask him to ferry them out to their property.

To date about $15 million has been spent for 10,000-plus acres (43,300 additional acres were donated by the State of Florida). Agents at the Land Acquisition Office say offers start at about $400 an acre and increase, depending on the condition of the property, access, proximity to roads, et cetera. Progress has been slow owing to a lack of funds; last year no money was allocated at all. In October President Clinton approved a $12 million expenditure, in part for Everglades ecosystem improvements.

"It really is critical for the restoration project that this land be acquired as soon as possible," says Joette Lorion of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Everglades. "Until it is replumbed, the land continues to die. If we don't get going fast enough we might be left with one giant autopsy report."

Kennon supported the act and he still believes it is necessary, but he wonders why he's being forced to shut his business down. "Can you see where we went?" he demands, gazing back over the dark-green path the airboat has traced through the sawgrass. "The only thing you can see is wet trail. You can't see no destroyed grass. We hydroplane on about a half-inch of water."

Kennon maintains that airboats are environmentally friendly and foster appreciation of the Everglades' delicate ecosystem. In addition to his tourist clientele, who pay him ten dollars a pop for an up-close look at the Everglades, he gives tours to schoolchildren and groups like the Boy Scouts. Coopertown has also been the site of numerous fashion shoots and movies, including The Mean Season and Invasion U.S.A.

When the act was in the planning stages, Kennon says, the superintendent of Everglades National Park promised him a concession. "He said that I'd be in all the national park advertising," Kennon asserts. "I said, 'Great, then there's no reason for me to fight you.'" Indeed, in its final form, the act permits airboat concessions for existing businesses if they are authorized by the secretary of the interior.

So when federal land buyers knocked on Kennon's door on May 4, 1994, and made him an offer for his single acre, he reminded them of the superintendent's promise. "They said the concession had nothing to do with acquiring the land," he snorts. They also refused to compensate him for the loss of his business. "They said, 'If you don't agree with us, then we'll take you to condemnation court,' and I said, 'Well, I guess that's where we'll be.'"

Rick Cook, a spokesman for Everglades National Park, says Superintendent Dick Ring will make a final decision about any airboat concessions after the property is acquired. But he notes that airboats are banned from the rest of the park, except for the rangers' own occasional use for patrolling. "I think it's been a long-established policy of the park that airboat use is inconsistent with park purposes." says Cook. "There have been some fairly extensive studies that document damage to resources from physical impact from the boats." Cook contends that the boats harm the sawgrass and that the noise from their engines disturbs wildlife, affecting their nesting behavior and breeding patterns.

Kennon won't divulge the amount of the park service's initial offer but says he has heard nothing further from them. Three months ago the government reappraised his property, and he's expecting a second offer any day. "I'm assuming it's not going to be much better," he muses. "And if they're not going to offer me a concession, I'm not accepting."

Kennon is hoping to win through sheer obstinacy. It worked before. Coopertown was founded by his cousins in 1945, after they moved down from Missouri when World War II ammo plants started to lay off workers. Three brothers by the last name of Cooper pitched tents on the site of an Indian camp and lived in the open for the first two years. "You had to be a tough individual to survive out here," Kennon comments.

In 1975 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to blow up a bridge that John Cooper had built to get his clients across the Tamiami Canal. Cooper's girlfriend took her rocking chair to the bridge and sat there for ten days until the government gave up. The bridge still stands.

So far two of Kennon's neighbors have sold their properties. The owner of Frog City, which also offered airboat tours, moved up north. Ned Williams, who owned the bait and tackle shop up the road, is now a hardware salesman at Home Depot.

Williams bought his store in 1967 and kept it until last June. He remembers the hunters setting up camps along the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley a week before the season opened; they'd pitch tents along the levees and there would be bonfires as far as the eye could see.

"It was wonderful," he recalls. "It was fresh air and no problems and everyone was in a good mood." People came for weekend recreation, to hunt or fish or cruise the shallow canals, or they came for months at a time, secluding themselves on hammocks and constructing rustic campgrounds and elaborate hunting lodges. During the good years, Williams says, he grossed $250,000.

But toward the end of the Eighties, business began to fall off. There was the mercury scare -- scientists warned that Everglades fish were dangerous to eat. "That was the beginning of the end," Williams says. "It just changed. There weren't as many animals. Not so many birds came south. The tree snails weren't as plentiful."

When the government made him an offer -- $180,000 for a little over half an acre -- he was relieved. "All I could see was more people leaving and more regulations," he says. Even though the National Park Service refused to compensate him for his business, he figured their offer was the best he could do. "If I had chosen to go to court, I would have had to pay lawyers' fees. It would have been a two- or three-year battle, and I would have lost anyway."

Richard Farace, Jr., whose father owns the Everglades Safari Park, the largest airboat establishment on the Tamiami Trail, didn't want to discuss his family's negotiations with the government. But he says he's hoping to remain in business.

"Who wants to work in the city?" he grins. "It's a rat race.

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