Skimming the Surface

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

As far as members of the AAF are concerned, park service personnel should stay put in the park, though stories abound of rangers who attempt to exert their authority beyond the boundaries, often by showing up at hunting camps.

Balman maintains that rangers have no need to be armed. "All of these children are getting damaged in town with all the drug dealers and drugheads, and the rangers are out here spending thousands of dollars of our tax money for nothing," he says. "Why don't they take these law enforcement officers and put them into town where they could do some good?"

Biologist Ron Jones is also skeptical about the need for armed rangers. "What's a park ranger or a state game officer going to do with his gun? 'We caught this guy poaching a rabbit so we blew him away.' I mean, I'm sorry, but it's not legitimate. A park ranger does not need a gun!"

Rangers think otherwise, largely because they feel like sitting ducks on top of a four-foot-high airboat seat, especially during hunting season. "You're sitting up pretty high; you don't have any cover or concealment. You have to make contact with somebody who has weapons, and you try to do that as safely as possible and get control of that situation as fast as possible," Thatcher explains. "You always approach a stop in a cautionary mindset. If you go with your guard down, you can get into trouble pretty quick."

Tensions between airboaters and rangers seem to have eased over the past hunting season compared to other years, though. The latest issue of the AAF's newsletter, written by Balman's wife Carol, sums it up this way: "The park service wasn't as pushy this year, which was kind of scary. There were a few run-ins with some folks and the park service, but nothing serious."

Thatcher agrees with that assessment, but flatly rejects accusations that he and his rangers harass airboaters. "We are responsible for protecting the resource and protecting the visitor here, and we go about that job the best we can," he says calmly. "If people think that I think it's my park, that is a misperception. It isn't mine any more than it's theirs."

Park managers have yet to determine just how much airboat use will be allowed in the East Everglades once the park takes control. But greater restrictions on the numbers and movements of airboaters are certain to come. "Whether it will be through a permit system or on specific trails, that has not been decided yet," chief ranger Reed Detring says. "But airboating is an activity that's going to remain in that area. There will be private airboating in there for the foreseeable future."

AAF president Dave Balman is not optimistic. "I'm sure that as soon as they get all the land bought up behind the airboat club, they'll turn their eyes solely on us because we'll be the only ones in their beloved area," he predicts. "You can bet your butt they'll start finding excuses to get us out.

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