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Squealing bikini-clad blondes and brunettes throw their hands up rollercoaster-style as they skim across the Everglades. The six wannabe models look like they're having a hell of a time, shimmying in their seats and tossing out come-hither smiles each time the director calls for another take. Of course, it's not easy to hear much of anything over the roar of the airboat's 500-cubic-inch Cadillac V8. But Christa, Deri, Jennifer, Saskia, Marjolein, and Lucinda pretend anyway, chatting demurely and shouting inaudibly to the cameraman leaning out of a chase boat on a recent weekday morning.
MTV Holland is filming an episode for a reality show called Real Babes, and Jesse Kennon, the self-proclaimed mayor of Coopertown, an airboat tour operation on the northeast edge of the River of Grass, is their pilot. His hand on the throttle, Kennon stares out on the prairie sea he calls home and feigns disinterest in the girls. For the 63-year-old, it's just another day on the swamps south of the Tamiami Trail, eleven miles west of Florida's Turnpike.
The week before, on October 29, it was a Tommy Hilfiger catalog shoot. Over the past few years, while the National Park Service has been busy buying up almost 110,000 acres of the East Everglades, Kennon has played swamp host to Elle, Vogue, and GQ. He's had Donna Karan models wearing $10,000 evening gowns on his airboats and Playboy models wearing nothing but forced smiles. The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and a Latin soap called Gata Salvaje (Wild Cat) have filmed here. Chuck Norris, Mariel Hemingway, and Raul Julia have done scenes too. Kennon even had a quick cameo in the first episode of CSI: Miami.
When he isn't ferrying models and celebrities around the Glades, Kennon spends his days under the cotton-candy clouds with tourists. Flying across the water this morning, he points out white fragrant swamp lilies with lipstick-red pistils and prickle weeds with firecracker-purple petals. Kennon's voice is soothing, the kind you wouldn't mind hearing on predawn radio, as soft as his wispy, rust-colored sideburns. His gaze is steady but gentle behind wire-rimmed glasses, and his receding hairline exposes a sun-reddened forehead.
Taking a break from models and engine whines, Kennon sits at a table in Coopertown's shoebox of a restaurant, rubbing his golden alligator ring. The subject turns to the park service, and Kennon's voice turns to a sharp edge. It's been sixteen years since Congress passed the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act and five years since the former park superintendent told Kennon and two other airboat operators they would have to pack it in, Kennon says.
Though the park service relented in the face of media attention and opposition from Congressional representatives, Kennon is still waiting to hear what fate holds for him. He's unsure if the business his cousin opened just after World War II, the place where Kennon learned to drive an airboat at age seven, will be allowed to stay open a year from now.
"First off, I don't like being pushed around," Kennon complains. "Second part, I'm an American, and this isn't a Third World country. Third thing, there's laws that say you can't do that," he says of the park service's potential taking of his property.
Since last month, park authorities have been studying the tour operations' impact on the land and collecting public input, according to Brien Culhane, chief of planning and environmental compliance for the park. In 2009 the service should have in place a twenty-year general management plan that will spell out the long-term fate of airboats in the Everglades. They'll consider factors such as Coopertown's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and the effect of the engines' loud noise on endangered creatures like the Florida panther.
It's unclear what weight cultural and historical factors will have. "That's an interesting question," Culhane says. In the meantime, the park service is doing all it can to work with the remaining airboat operators while balancing wilderness protection and public access, Culhane explains.
Frank Denninger, a Hialeah-based advocate for expanded access to public lands, calls the park service's potential ban on airboat operators "cultural cleansing." Far from a blight on the park's purity, simple buildings such as Coopertown's so-called "mayoral palace," a three-room pine house where Kennon lives, reflect local culture and embody "a long-term bond that people have had with that area," Denninger says.
The end could come next year or three years from now or twenty years down the line or maybe never. "They could just say you're gone," Kennon remarks.
Jon Weisberg, owner of Gator Park, another airboat company in the area, is confident the park service will grant him a concession contract based on the number of tourists that airboats draw to the area and the accessibility they offer to the Glades. "You may as well think positively," he says.
Rick Farace, owner of Everglades Safari Park another airboat operator isn't so sure. But, like Weisberg, he's going ahead as usual. He spent $80,000 for a recent repair job on two of his larger airboats. "We might be throwing our money into a toilet," he says.
For now, Kennon has other things to worry about, namely Dutch reality-TV stars. Less than an hour after blowing in to Coopertown, while floating in a canal about a quarter-mile out, the crew complains of a tight schedule. They do a few more takes streams of Dutch sprinkled with the word babes and what looks like a funny bit with a curious gator named Peg. Then they signal Kennon to head back. Off the boat, the models pile into their rental van without a word to Kennon. They crowd around the camera to watch themselves on playback. Soon they're gone, speeding to catch a plane to Amsterdam.
Kennon turns around and climbs back on the boat. He starts up the deafening engine and heads out, ready to show the next group of sunblock-dabbing Europeans the saw-grass sea.