Skimming the Surface

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

Such assessments annoy the AAF's rank and file. "We're not out there to tear up the woods. We're out there to enjoy it. We want to leave it for our kids too," member Terry Brown maintains. "The trails have been there for 50 or 60 years. There ain't that much damage. You get in an airplane and look at the East Everglades, and you'll see four or five main trails that go all through this property. And most of the people do use them."

Balman maintains that Everglades sawgrass is far tougher than environmentalists think. "It regrows in a matter of weeks. Not years, but weeks, even days," Balman observes. "It's just like when a fire goes through there. In a matter of six days, the grass is back up three inches."

"No no no no no," counters Jones. "When they go through the sawgrass, those trails stay essentially forever. It's not as resilient as folks would have us believe."

Jones concedes the airboaters one point: Airboat trails do provide open water for birds to feed in. "That may be a mitigating factor so that they aren't doing as much damage as they could. But nobody said 'We really need some more places for birds to feed. Would you please make some more open-water areas?' I'm sorry, but this is a natural environment, and airboat trails aren't part of the natural environment." As Jones motors toward one of his research sites, he is careful to stay on the trail. But for him, concerns about airboat damage are outweighed by a more urgent matter: How much phosphorus is too much for the Everglades to bear?

The environmental group Friends of the Everglades is also concentrating on that issue and has yet to adopt a firm stand on how much airboat damage is too much. "How else can you get into the middle of the Everglades and just be there, unless you take a canoe and it takes you days," ponders Joette Lorien, president of Friends of the Everglades. "It's a hard balancing job between protecting the resource and letting people in to see it so that they love it and want to visit it."

An airboat will glide over sawgrass but not over a submerged tree stump, which can flip a speeding boat and send passengers flying. The East Everglades is filled with the stumps of thousands of exotic trees, the result of a melaleuca tree eradication effort spearheaded by the park service. The stumps have become another point of disagreement between service staffers and airboaters.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced melaleucas into South Florida in 1906 for landscaping, especially in and around Miami. Because the Australian species has a high affinity for growing in swampy conditions and spreads rapidly, botanists also planted the trees in the hopes of draining the swampland, believing they would suck up water. In subsequent years commercial foresters planted melaleucas in the East Everglades, thinking they might harvest the trees for wood. That plan was scrapped after the foresters discovered that the tree's thick, shaggy bark made it too difficult to mill. In the Thirties developers aided the species' propagation immeasurably by dropping seeds from an airplane in a scheme to dry up tracts of the Everglades and make them farmable. And melaleucas continued to spread seeds on their own. It wasn't until the early Eighties that ecological researchers became alarmed at the tree's ability to dry up the national park.

"It's gotten to the point where you're likely to run into melaleuca stumps anywhere," sighs David Lowrey, an AAF member who works in the Everglades as a fireman for the state forestry department. He recalls organizing a rescue team last fall to find two airboaters who crashed north of the Tamiami Trail after hitting a stump. The boaters were stranded for two days before the rescuers found them. One suffered a broken arm.

Two airboaters have died in the past five months in the Everglades after their boats flipped. Neither accident occurred in the East Everglades, but Balman and other airboaters suspect melaleuca stumps were to blame. "The propeller chopped through the [propeller] guard, and it chopped him in two," Balman notes somberly.

It is not the melaleuca eradication itself that upsets airboaters, but how the crews have gone about it. Lowrey says crews don't always leave markers to indicate where stumps are. "It's like a road crew digging a big pothole in the middle of a road and not putting a pylon there," he says. The way Lowrey and other airboaters view it, the melaleuca crisis is yet another problem created by the government and private developers.

The park service changed its melaleuca-chopping technique in 1995 after airboaters complained about the stumps, insists Doug Devries, a biological technician who manages the park's melaleuca eradication program. Before the change, the crews would chop the trees off at the water's surface and then introduce a poison into the stumps. When the water level rose, the stumps became hidden. "We had some accidents in 1995 as the crews began to move into areas frequented by airboaters," he recalls. "We tried to modify our operation to minimize the hazards by leaving a sufficient number of trees up to mark the area." Now workers introduce the poison into the trunks of standing trees, a procedure known as girdling, Devries says.

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