Skimming the Surface

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

The meeting continues with the induction of two new members, including Kenny Cypress, a Miccosukee alligator wrestler who made news in January when he stuck his head inside an alligator's jaws, lost control of the animal, and spent two excruciating minutes with the animal's teeth locked against his skull. Fellow wrestlers finally pried the jaws loose, and Cypress walked away without serious injuries.

"Any questions for Kenny?" Balman asks, as Cypress stands before the group.
"Is he a hard worker?" asks one member.
"When he don't have a headache!" another member interjects, triggering an outburst of laughter. Cypress, a stocky young man who smiles sheepishly, is approved unanimously.

Balman identifies the second candidate for induction as a bail bondsman. "Anybody want to ask the bail bondsman a question?" he cajoles.

"Why do you want to be a member of the airboat association?" someone shouts.
"He needs business!" another member yells. Again, the room erupts.

As should be apparent, AAF members are a friendly, informal lot. That's how it's always been. The group was founded after World War II by a small group of hunters who had homes in or near the Everglades. Jobs were scarce, so they lived off the area's wildlife, fishing and hunting deer, hogs, alligators, and frogs. Because of the vast swampy terrain, they had little chance of taking any game without an airboat.

The airboats they used can be traced to one invented in 1933 by Johnny Lamb and Russell Howard, two Everglades frog hunters who were tired of pushing their little flat-bottom skiffs through the swamp. They needed a boat that could skim over shallow water filled with weeds and mud. An outboard motor was not an option because the propeller would immediately get clogged. So the duo attached a secondhand airplane propeller to a 75-horsepower motorcycle engine and mounted it on the deck of a twelve-foot wooden boat, near the stern. The thrust not only propelled the craft forward but lifted the bottom up to the water's surface. The faster the airboat went, the higher it rode.

Lamb and Howard's cabinless airboat proved the ideal form of transport for negotiating the Everglades. Today there are tens of thousands of airboats in South Florida. They range in price from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $20,000, depending on the size of the engine and propeller. Most airboats can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour or more, though generally go much slower in the dense, boggy Everglades. Airboats must be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but as is the case with any boat in Florida, no license is required to drive one.

When Everglades National Park was created, nearly a million and a half acres of swampland became off-limits to all motorized vehicles, including airboats. "So the airboaters decided to band together to promote and preserve the use of airboats in the Everglades region specifically and to preserve the Everglades so that they could continue their hunting, fishing, and frogging in perpetuity," Balman explains.

The AAF does not view airboats or those who use them as harmful to the environment. Quite the contrary. The group's charter states: "The general object of the corporation is to preserve and conserve the wildlife of the state of Florida, so that residents of Florida and visitors therein may view and enjoy the fauna of the territory ... [and] to promote and control the use and operation of airboats so that their use will in no way be in degradation of the principle objects of this association."

Balman himself joined the airboat association in 1957, when he was ten years old. At the time, his father, a marine who fought in the battle of Iwo Jima, was a state game warden in the Everglades. Balman's Everglades roots date back to the late 1800s, when one of his grandmothers arrived from Michigan on horseback. Early this century the family owned a sawmill in what is now Big Cypress Preserve. It is this heritage that gives Balman, and other long-time AAF members, a proprietary sense about the Everglades.

Balman has been president of the association for twenty years. Among his predecessors was the late Francis S. Taylor, a Miami Springs sportsman and conservationist who has a 725,000-acre state wildlife management area in the Everglades named after him. Taylor was known for building "mud pies" -- little islands in the Everglades to help deer and other game keep from drowning in floods -- and Balman was among the airboaters who helped him.

In 1989, when Congress was drafting legislation to annex the 107,000 acres of private property in the East Everglades, Balman flew to Washington to oppose the bill. To him and other sportsmen, a bigger park meant one thing: less access to the Everglades. Although they failed to block the legislation, Balman persuaded lawmakers to let the AAF keep its ten acres. It is the only tract of land in the East Everglades exempt from the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act.

Nonetheless, Balman remains bitter over the park's expansion. "We fought against it because it's not going to be any medicine for the park. It's total political buffalo chips." Balman argues that the ecosystem would be far healthier had it been left in the hands of local groups like the AAF rather than with federal agencies such as the park service and the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps was responsible for digging the region's myriad canals and levees in the Forties to protect farmland and housing from floods.

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