Skimming the Surface

Airboaters say they are friends of the Everglades. Park rangers and environmentalists beg to differ.

Glen Wilsey is knee-deep in a slough three miles south of the Tamiami Trail. Dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, sunlight glinting off his sunglasses, the airboat guide is inviting the six tourists he has just transported into the heart of the Everglades to join him. He wants them to feel the soothing squish of the swamp bottom on their feet: "Don't worry," he says. "Nothing will sneak up on you in the Everglades when you're out in open water."

Nothing, that is, except maybe a national park ranger.
"When you get close to the boundary, a lot of times the park service will pull in on you with a helicopter or airboats or both," he warns the tourists, pointing across the glittering water and wheat-color sawgrass toward the park, which lies about fifteen miles to the south. As a tour guide, Wilsey never crosses into park territory. But as a recreational airboater he sometimes parallels the boundary, and that can attract rangers. "They totally harass you, make you take everything out of your boat, check out everything on the boat, run checks on you and on everybody on your boat. They're supposed to be here to teach us about the Everglades, not arrest us," he scolds.

For decades South Floridians have used airboats to hunt, fish, and sightsee in the Everglades. Like Wilsey, many airboaters regard park rangers as their chief antagonists in a long-standing dispute over who should be allowed access to the Everglades. Since the inception of Everglades National Park in 1947, all motor vehicles, including airboats, have been prohibited from the park's wilderness area, which encompasses roughly 1.3 million acres. Only rangers and researchers are allowed to airboat inside the park. Others risk a $250 fine, or arrest if they attempt to flee. Although arrests are rare, tensions are likely to escalate as the park service prepares to take control of a huge area where airboaters now roam freely.

As he speaks, Wilsey's feet are planted on private property, in what is known as the East Everglades -- about 107,000 acres of private property south of the Tamiami Trail that is destined to become the northeast section of Everglades National Park. The Everglades Protection and Expansion Act, passed by Congress in 1989, authorizes the federal government to purchase the land. Since then the park service has bought a little more than half of the expansion area. A patchwork of about 48,000 acres remains in private hands. Last month Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit toured the area, by airboat, and announced a plan to appropriate $26 million this year -- enough to purchase some 15,000 more acres. Among the private landholders are the three airboat tour operators along the south side of the Tamiami Trail, including Coopertown Airboat Rides, Everglades Safari Park, and Wilsey's employer, Gator Park.

The park service considers the expansion crucial to a federal and state effort to restore the Everglades' natural water flow, long disrupted by canals and highways and polluted by agricultural chemicals. Airboaters maintain that their activities would not impair the restoration, which they insist could proceed just as well if the East Everglades remained private. Wilsey concludes his sermon amid the sawgrass: "I'm a naturalist more than an ecologist, and I believe that man, machines, and animals can coexist. The park already owns a million and a half acres. But the less the park gets, the more people are going to be able to see the Everglades. Because we want everybody to be able to check out the Everglades."

Under the 1989 law, all of the privately owned land in the East Everglades south of the Tamiami Trail should belong to Everglades National Park by the year 2002. With one exception: ten acres just a few miles west of Gator Park that belongs to the Airboat Association of Florida (AAF).

It is a Tuesday night and the Tamiami Trail is dark. But just off the side of the road, inside a little house beyond a chainlink fence, AAF president Dave Balman is calling the club's monthly meeting to order. Balman is seated at a big wooden table in a hunting cap and vest. To his left his wife Carol, the association's secretary, is taking notes; to his right, vice president Richard Potter reads a newspaper. A large American flag hangs on the wall behind them. On the door a National Rifle Association poster outlines gun safety rules, a reminder for members who use the club's nearby target range at the edge of the swamp. Many of the association's members are hunters and fishermen.

"There are a lot of people who want to restrict our airboat activities and our firearm activities," Balman tells the three dozen men and two women seated before him in rows of metal chairs. "We got to fight and write letters and make phone calls to state legislators or it's all over."

Of immediate concern on this night is legislation that Dade County mayor Alex Penelas is pushing in Tallahassee. "This pissant Penelas wants to pass a new gun control law," Balman sneers. Penelas wants state legislators to require a waiting period for firearms purchased at flea markets and gun shows, which are now exempt from the restriction. Balman circulates a list of phone numbers of state legislators and urges members to call, call, call.

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