Skimming the Surface

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

Before the canals, Balman says, the Everglades enjoyed natural cycles of flood and drought. During the dry season birds could find nesting areas, and deer and other animals had plenty of land on which to forage. "We've got so much water out there now that it's destroying the habitat," he submits. "It should be almost dry this time of year, so the wading birds can be nesting and everything. The water right now is as high as it would be with normal high water. The Everglades ecosystem as we've known it is turning into a reservoir."

While he'd like to see the Everglades return to its precanal state, he is sure that will never happen. "I'd like to see the canals all gone and the area back to more like it was. But that's not reality. I mean, we've got millions of people living here now. What are we going to do?"

"Believe me, the rangers would just as soon that we weren't here," scoffs biologist Ron Jones. "They'd just as soon shoot us as allow our researchers into the park. Rangers don't like people in their park. They think it's their park. That's their attitude. It's the ranger way." As he speaks, Jones is about to climb into an airboat, six miles inside the park boundary, on the tram tour road that winds south from the park's Shark Valley visitor center.

Unlike recreational airboaters, though, Jones has permission to motor through the park, as director of the Southeast Environmental Research Program at Florida International University. He and 52 other researchers are currently setting up three monitoring sites southwest of the East Everglades, each 100 by 30 meters, to measure the damage that phosphorus from agricultural runoff is inflicting on the ecosystem.

Jones and his team make use of three airboats to get back and forth to the sites. Park rangers have tried to force Jones and his associates to register their names and departure times for each trip. So far Jones, a voluble, wiry man who moved to Miami from Oregon in 1985, has succeeding in thwarting the paperwork. "Some of them are real control freaks. They want us to sign in, they want us to sign out," he moans. "It's not necessary."

But Jones's disdain for rangers does not translate into sympathy with recreational airboaters. He sums up the condition of the East Everglades: "It's trashed. You can go down the L-67 canal, and it's like night and day how nice the marsh looks on the park side and how crappy it looks on the other side, where the airboats are. Now, it's not the airboat tour operators, the Jesse Keenons of the world at Coopertown, that are doing the damage. They go on the trails, because they're showing the tourists.

"But some of these guys, the deer hunters or whatever, they go in, and they start busting trails through the shallow tree islands or the willow heads rather than taking the open water. Through open water there's nothing really going to be harmed in that. But the rangers have a legitimate reason to try to keep the yahoos from coming in here, especially when we get the expansion lands."

Jones's concern is not only aesthetic. The more trails there are, he says, the less the marsh is able to filter out excessive amounts of phosphorus. The phosphorus foments unnatural numbers of cattails, which in turn choke the native sawgrass. "The trails actually act as conduits that bring contaminated water deeper into the marsh," he explains. "Now that's not the airboaters' fault. They didn't put the nutrients in the water. But there is a problem with trails, because they cause unnatural movements of water in the system."

Part of the problem in trying to limit airboat use, Jones says, comes down to one basic factor: the rush of riding in an airboat. "This is way more fun than I should be allowed to have," the biologist confesses.

Jones puts on a pair of headphone-shape earplugs, climbs up onto the elevated chair on his airboat, and starts the six-cylinder airplane engine. The four-foot-long wooden propeller, housed inside a mesh of thick wire directly behind him, roars into an invisible spin, sending the craft forward. It is soon virtually airborne, the steel hull skimming over a slough of open swampwater, which streams under the squared-off bow. Light blue jacket flapping wildly, Jones rips through the air. Every once in a while the stern starts to fishtail, but he straightens his course, quickly moving the two rudder flaps behind the engine. The flaps allow him to steer by directing the air.

Jones selected his crew's lightweight keelless Thurman airboats (made by Opa-locka boat builder Gary Thurman) because they cause less damage to vegetation than heavier, keeled boats. He and his staff use one of just three airboat trails in the area, to further minimize damage.

After a few minutes Jones stops in the middle of a trail, five-foot walls of sawgrass rising on either side, to demonstrate how, over time, airboats cut a permanent groove in a swath of sawgrass. "This trail is used only by researchers and rangers, but this is what happens," he explains, pointing at the water path, which is full of floating stems. "But the problem isn't a single trail. The problem is trails. If this were [the East Everglades] there'd be a trail over there, one over there, and one over there, and there and there and there, and they'd all be crisscrossing, and you'd have a checkerboard situation."

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