Skimming the Surface

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

But Devries lays some of the blame for the accidents on the airboaters themselves: "The park has always encouraged people to stay on airboat trails and has warned that you're always at risk of encountering various obstructions if you go off the trails, whether there's melaleuca work being done or not." If the melaleuca eradication budget stays at its current rate of $250,000 per year, Devries estimates, workers will complete the initial treatment five years from now. Then the crews will retrace their steps to find any melaleucas that survived, a process that could take several more years.

Tensions over this issue are unlikely to end any time soon. And they may be exacerbated by the contention that airboats actually help to spread seeds by brushing over melaleuca saplings. "Any type of disturbance makes these areas more prone to invasion by exotics, whether it's a natural disturbance -- hurricanes, storms, fire or what have you -- or a human disturbance, such as mechanical removal of the seeds," says Don Schmitz, a state biologist and exotic species expert. "But it's a dilemma. Most [park] managers are having a hell of a problem trying to conserve the uniqueness of the ecosystem and public access. It's extremely difficult, and I don't want to be in their shoes."

In total, Everglades National Park employs 31 full-time law enforcement rangers, and this year's budget for policing the 1.5 million acre park is $1,886,600. "Our law enforcement program is low-key," maintains chief ranger Reed Detring. "It's customer-service oriented. We try to make the visitor's experience a more positive one."

The rangers themselves perform a job that is usually thankless, and sometimes hazardous. This is especially true of the five who work in the park's Tamiami district, which lies just west of the private lands in the East Everglades. Of the 23 illegal airboat intrusions the park service recorded over the past year, 22 occurred in the Tamiami district. Because rangers are far outnumbered by recreational airboaters, they detect most incursions only after the airboaters are long gone. There is no telling how many offenders go undetected.

Many airboaters will go to great lengths to avoid a ranger. Ranger Craig Thatcher recalls a patrol he was on this past December. He had skimmed over the airboat trail that runs south from the Tamiami ranger station on the northern edge of the park and then headed a few miles east to hunker down for a night of staking out the park boundary.

The area he picked is a favorite haunt for deer hunters, not far from the southern end of the L-67 canal, which runs south from the Tamiami Trail for nine miles before spilling into an expanse of cattails. The canal's eastern edge is flanked by an earthen levee, which marks the boundary between the park and the private lands of the East Everglades.

A few hundred yards to the east of him, Thatcher heard an airboat rip through the solitude. Using his radio headset, he contacted a fellow ranger who was in another airboat nearby. The rangers pursued the fleeing boat for several minutes but aborted the chase when their hulls began to slam against rocks just under the surface. They throttled down and listened as the fugitive escaped.

"You could hear them hitting dozens of rocks and obstacles out there," Thatcher remembers, eyes sleepy from one too many overnight patrols. "They must have torn up their airboat. Whatever they were involved in, they were running all out to get from point A to point B. We decided to save our hulls. We can't replace hulls every time we have to chase somebody."

In January another party of airboaters along the park boundary near the L-67 canal was not so lucky. One of Thatcher's colleagues was asleep during another overnight stakeout until a gunshot woke him up at about 4:30 a.m. He called Thatcher, and the two raced in the direction of the shot. This time the suspects did not flee. "Sure enough, they had shot a four-point buck two hours before the legal daylight hour for hunting," Thatcher recounts. He summoned a state game officer, who issued citations and seized the hunters' airboat.

"It's a cat and mouse game," sighs Thatcher, a Massachusetts native who worked at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi before transferring to Everglades National Park in 1990. "You try to keep the honest people honest, and you try to catch the one to five percent that may be involved in illegal activities," such as poaching or crossing the park boundary in an airboat.

Adding to Thatcher's woes, the Tamiami District also shares a boundary with Big Cypress National Preserve, where frogging and airboating are allowed year-round, and where various kinds of hunting are permitted from September to February. It is just too tempting for some hunters to resist bagging a deer inside the park. "They'll shoot it and then go in and pick it up, and then quickly get back out."

Thatcher concedes that his crew of five rangers is badly outnumbered by the dozens of recreational airboaters that might be near the park boundary on any given day or night. But the rangers' detective work is aided by the noise of the boats, which can be heard from a few miles away (most of the noise comes not from the engine but from the air whipped up by the propeller). To make up for their limited manpower, the rangers have surveillance equipment planted in strategic locations along the park boundary, though Thatcher politely declines to provide any details about the instruments. Thatcher and his colleagues are also armed with handguns and M-16 rifles.

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