Skimming the Surface

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

Glen Wilsey is knee-deep in a slough three miles south of the Tamiami Trail. Dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, sunlight glinting off his sunglasses, the airboat guide is inviting the six tourists he has just transported into the heart of the Everglades to join him. He wants them to feel the soothing squish of the swamp bottom on their feet: "Don't worry," he says. "Nothing will sneak up on you in the Everglades when you're out in open water."

Nothing, that is, except maybe a national park ranger.
"When you get close to the boundary, a lot of times the park service will pull in on you with a helicopter or airboats or both," he warns the tourists, pointing across the glittering water and wheat-color sawgrass toward the park, which lies about fifteen miles to the south. As a tour guide, Wilsey never crosses into park territory. But as a recreational airboater he sometimes parallels the boundary, and that can attract rangers. "They totally harass you, make you take everything out of your boat, check out everything on the boat, run checks on you and on everybody on your boat. They're supposed to be here to teach us about the Everglades, not arrest us," he scolds.

For decades South Floridians have used airboats to hunt, fish, and sightsee in the Everglades. Like Wilsey, many airboaters regard park rangers as their chief antagonists in a long-standing dispute over who should be allowed access to the Everglades. Since the inception of Everglades National Park in 1947, all motor vehicles, including airboats, have been prohibited from the park's wilderness area, which encompasses roughly 1.3 million acres. Only rangers and researchers are allowed to airboat inside the park. Others risk a $250 fine, or arrest if they attempt to flee. Although arrests are rare, tensions are likely to escalate as the park service prepares to take control of a huge area where airboaters now roam freely.

As he speaks, Wilsey's feet are planted on private property, in what is known as the East Everglades -- about 107,000 acres of private property south of the Tamiami Trail that is destined to become the northeast section of Everglades National Park. The Everglades Protection and Expansion Act, passed by Congress in 1989, authorizes the federal government to purchase the land. Since then the park service has bought a little more than half of the expansion area. A patchwork of about 48,000 acres remains in private hands. Last month Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit toured the area, by airboat, and announced a plan to appropriate $26 million this year -- enough to purchase some 15,000 more acres. Among the private landholders are the three airboat tour operators along the south side of the Tamiami Trail, including Coopertown Airboat Rides, Everglades Safari Park, and Wilsey's employer, Gator Park.

The park service considers the expansion crucial to a federal and state effort to restore the Everglades' natural water flow, long disrupted by canals and highways and polluted by agricultural chemicals. Airboaters maintain that their activities would not impair the restoration, which they insist could proceed just as well if the East Everglades remained private. Wilsey concludes his sermon amid the sawgrass: "I'm a naturalist more than an ecologist, and I believe that man, machines, and animals can coexist. The park already owns a million and a half acres. But the less the park gets, the more people are going to be able to see the Everglades. Because we want everybody to be able to check out the Everglades."

Under the 1989 law, all of the privately owned land in the East Everglades south of the Tamiami Trail should belong to Everglades National Park by the year 2002. With one exception: ten acres just a few miles west of Gator Park that belongs to the Airboat Association of Florida (AAF).

It is a Tuesday night and the Tamiami Trail is dark. But just off the side of the road, inside a little house beyond a chainlink fence, AAF president Dave Balman is calling the club's monthly meeting to order. Balman is seated at a big wooden table in a hunting cap and vest. To his left his wife Carol, the association's secretary, is taking notes; to his right, vice president Richard Potter reads a newspaper. A large American flag hangs on the wall behind them. On the door a National Rifle Association poster outlines gun safety rules, a reminder for members who use the club's nearby target range at the edge of the swamp. Many of the association's members are hunters and fishermen.

"There are a lot of people who want to restrict our airboat activities and our firearm activities," Balman tells the three dozen men and two women seated before him in rows of metal chairs. "We got to fight and write letters and make phone calls to state legislators or it's all over."

Of immediate concern on this night is legislation that Dade County mayor Alex Penelas is pushing in Tallahassee. "This pissant Penelas wants to pass a new gun control law," Balman sneers. Penelas wants state legislators to require a waiting period for firearms purchased at flea markets and gun shows, which are now exempt from the restriction. Balman circulates a list of phone numbers of state legislators and urges members to call, call, call.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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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