Fiery Debate Over Miami Air Show in Everglades

Update: On July 8, 2015, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Miami-Dade Aviation Department to scrap the idea to hold an air show at the Everglades Jetport.

Roger Hammer is searching for wildflowers.
A wilderness photographer since 1972, the tall, sturdy 70-year-old has spent much of his life in the world-famous swamps of South Florida. With a long gray ponytail swaying across his back, he steps over the soft, algae-covered slough floor about 60 miles west of Miami, where Tamiami Trail curves northwest.

It's humid at midday beneath a canopy of cypress and pond apple trees, and his dark-green shirt is soaked. After hearing a loud coo, Hammer stops cold, turning an ear to the sky. "It's a yellow-billed cuckoo," he whispers — a threatened species.

Suddenly, a burst of magenta lights up the monochrome landscape. It's a Bartram's rose gentian, a striking flower with thin, delicate petals, named for pioneering Florida naturalist William Bartram. They're in bloom for only a short time, dotting the marsh with flecks of color.

"It's this subtle scene with greens and browns, and then all of a sudden you see a pop of color and it's a gorgeous flower," Hammer says. "Now just imagine a deafening roar of huge airliners flying overhead, ruining this stillness for you and every animal out here. That's bullshit."

It's difficult to believe, but just a few hundred feet away, in Big Cypress National Preserve, sits a two-mile strip of concrete once planned to be the world's largest and most ambitious airport. In the late '60s, Dade County Mayor Chuck Hall proposed the 39-square-mile Everglades Jetport with six runways for "supersonic aircraft." Environmentalists waged a battle against it, and construction ceased after the completion of just a single runway. Over the years, it's been used as a training facility for pilots, hosting a handful of takeoffs and landings each day.

But if Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has his way, the airstrip to nowhere may finally be put to use. He wants it to become home to a version of the famed Paris Air Show, a massive aero-defense event that showcases the latest in aircraft innovation. After announcing the idea in March, Gimenez has largely remained quiet. This week, he's headed to the French capital on an exploratory trip with a retinue of county executives and lobbyists. One primary aim of the nine-day, $36,000 trip — which will include hotel stays in Paris and Marseille and numerous business meetings with executives, ambassadors, and French mayors — is to witness the world's oldest and largest air show and gauge whether something similar could be staged in Miami.

Opponents say a show in Big Cypress would be devastating to the Glades and would set a troubling precedent for use of conservation land. The plan has drawn a particularly passionate response from conservationists who decades ago fought the battle of their lives to ensure jumbo jets would never have a home in the world's most extensive, complex, and renowned wetland ecosystem.

"This sounds like one of those typical county promotions that makes no common sense," says Nat Reed, who was assistant secretary of the interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations. "It's just another ridiculous idea, exclamation point. They should be embarrassed for even thinking about it."

There were few people more integral to the fight over the Everglades Jetport than journalist-turned-environmentalist Joe Browder. In the '60s, he was a bespectacled, long-haired TV reporter covering local politics and Latin American affairs for NBC in Miami. Long a lover of the outdoors, he spent his evenings and weekends volunteering for the National Audubon Society.

In late 1967, Browder received a tip from famed Miami lawyer/rabble-rouser Dan Paul that would define the next years of his life: Dade County was secretly buying land from Collier County, just west of the Dade line. Browder got in touch with Robert Padrick, chairman of the Flood Control District's governing board, who said the land was pegged to become the world's largest airport. A new highway and mass transit high-speed train would have to be built — through one of the world's most precious conservation areas.

Twenty years had passed since Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass, drawing public attention to the swamp and leading President Harry Truman to protect more than 2 million acres as Everglades National Park. But by the late '60s, conservation was no longer at the top of the agenda. Instead, the county was figuring out how to develop South Florida to manage a huge influx of people. Before World War I, the state had fewer than 2 million residents. By 1965, its population had tripled to nearly 6 million. Authorities were floating the idea of dredging and filling Biscayne Bay's islands to produce a "paradise" they called "Islandia" and constructing a huge oil refinery south of Miami, amid the wetlands and mangroves.

The jetport would be five times the size of New York's JFK and larger than the City of Miami.

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Aviation planners predicted South Florida would need another major airport besides Miami International, and breaking the sound barrier over the increasingly populated Miami suburbs didn't seem feasible. So Dade County Mayor Charles "Chuck" Hall sold his fellow commissioners — who also served as the Dade County Port Authority — on the Big Cypress tract that had been left out of the bounds of Everglades National Park when it was dedicated in 1947. The airport would cost the county $52 million. The feds offered to provide $500,000 toward construction of the first runway and $200,000 more for a study of high-speed transportation.

Browder took action. In April 1968, he quit journalism to become the full-time southeastern representative of the National Audubon Society. By September 1968, ground had been broken on the "jetport of the future" — planned to be five times the size of New York's JFK and larger than the City of Miami. There would be a takeoff or landing every 30 seconds. Factories, farms, and citrus groves would spring up around it. Land nearby was already being sold at exorbitant prices.

A 10,500-foot runway was built — long enough to handle the largest jets and even a space shuttle. So were taxiways and shoulders. Five quarry pits were excavated during construction. The first part of the plan cost $12 million.

"A new city is going to rise up in the middle of Florida," Port Authority Director Alan C. Stewart told the New York Times in 1969, "whether you like it or not." He dismissed conservationists as "butterfly chasers" and termed the many rare and endangered bird species in the park "yellow-bellied sapsuckers." He called Reed and Browder "white militants."

Browder loved Big Cypress. He spent weekends wading through the water with his wife and kids, admiring the airboats and swamp buggies, and walking along Loop Road. To him, it was a paradise. "The reasons for putting the facility out there were absurd, and it would have done incalculable damage to the Everglades and Big Cypress," he says. "We just had to stop it."

He began piecing together a coalition — of scientists, hunters, Miccosukee Indians, business leaders, students, and environmental groups — to fight the plan. One night, his assistant ran into Marjory Stoneman Douglas while both women were buying cat food at the Quick & Easy Food Store in Coconut Grove. After a conversation about the jetport, Douglas, who was not yet involved, offered to help. So first thing one morning, Browder called Douglas, and the two drove to the site so that Douglas, by then 79 years old, could see the swampland plowed over and destroyed. On the way back, she declared she would form an advocacy organization. Later that year, Friends of the Everglades was started with a one-dollar contribution from Douglas, who became its first member.

Next, Browder connected with Florida Gov. Claude Kirk's young environmental adviser, Nathaniel "Nat" Reed. Already known as one of the state's fiercest environmental defenders, he could access power brokers in both Tallahassee and Washington.

"Once we started raising questions... it was clear this was much more a land development scheme than an aviation plan," Browder says. "Even the airlines started calling us and saying this was a crazy idea. They wanted to know why they should give up one of the world's most efficient airports for this place so far outside of Miami, along a two-lane highway."

On June 2, 1969, the Nixon administration created a committee to conduct an inquiry into the jetport. The U.S. Geological Survey's Luna Leopold directed it and wrote that the jetport would "inexorably destroy the South Florida ecosystem and thus the Everglades National Park." A subsequent report from the National Academy of Sciences confirmed the same.

With that, the opposition tipped the scales. On January 15, 1970, the Nixon administration announced an agreement with state and local authorities forbidding construction of the jetport, with the president calling it "an outstanding victory for conservation."

The jetport fight — which Browder says "fell apart of its own flaws" — had galvanized a national movement around Everglades restoration. Four years later, Big Cypress was named a national preserve, the first of its type in the United States. Unlike a national park, the 720,000 acres of freshwater swamp — an area 30 times the size of the City of Miami — allow for traditional uses of the land, such as hunting and fishing, while being protected from development.

"The failure of the jetport probably saved Miami-Dade County from total bankruptcy," says Reed, whose forthcoming book will devote its lead chapter to the jetport and Big Cypress. "Think about the cost of running fuel lines across the Everglades to get to the jetport, the cost of getting the necessary equipment to build hangars, the cost of sewage and industrial waste. Nowhere in the proposed jetport plan was there any consideration of the impact on the Biscayne Aquifer — a delicate water supply that provides drinking water for all of Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach counties."

Though it's situated mostly in Collier County, tucked about halfway between Miami and Naples, the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, known simply as TNT, is operated by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. Besides managing the single runway, Miami-Dade also oversees the remaining 22,540 acres of the airport as part of the Big Cypress Wildlife Management Area. It's a sleepy place; an online search for the airport brings up a website dedicated to "abandoned and little-known airfields."

The property now remains in a seminatural state. Trails have been cut by airboats, swamp buggies, and other off-road vehicles used by hunters. A fence around its perimeter is meant to prevent wildlife from crossing the runway.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the only sounds were the buzz of insects and frogs in the distance. Calls made from a phone box at the front gate weren't answered. Despite its messy beginnings, the jetport is generally a quiet and peaceful part of the preserve — at least for now.

Miami's aviation history is among the nation's richest. It dates back to 1911, when Howard Gill, who was trained by the Wright brothers, flew a biplane over a Miami golf course. In 1916, another aviation pioneer, Glenn A. Curtiss, opened a flight school here. And in 1927, Pan Am made history with its mail-carrying Fokker F.VII flight from Key West to Havana. Eastern Air Lines, one of the early "Big Four" domestic airlines, headed for a time by World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, was headquartered in Miami. The carrier was the city's largest employer from the mid-'70s until 1991, when it shut down.

Today, MIA and its four general-aviation airports support nearly one of every four jobs in the region, according to the Beacon Council. But since the jetport fight of the '60s, growth in the aviation industry has also been a gnawing source of strain.

"The tension isn't a question of jobs versus the environment or progress versus preservation," says Jonathan Ullman, senior representative of the Sierra Club Everglades. "This is about excess versus responsibility."

In 2001, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas lost one such battle. The issue was a plan to commercialize Homestead Air Reserve Base to "ease congestion from Miami International Airport." After environmentalists launched a war over the fate of the site, which neighbors not only the Glades but also Biscayne National Park, President Bill Clinton killed the idea. A modest military air show, Wings Over Homestead, has been held there since 2009. (It had been canceled after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.)

The Fort Lauderdale Air & Sea Show was long one of the region's most popular events, but it fell on hard times after pilot Ian Groom was killed in a spectacular crash during training in 2004, and McDonald's pulled its sponsorship three years later. For the past three years, the replacement Fort Lauderdale Air Show has hit funding and infrastructure roadblocks; it won't happen at all this year.

But Beacon Council leader Frank Nero had a bigger idea. An abrasive man with a great ability to conjure up a vision, he approached Miami-Dade politicians with plans for a Paris-style air show at the Homestead Air Reserve Base in July 2009. He claimed it would bring an estimated $350 million to the area and draw as many as 150,000 visitors per day for a week.

Led by aviation enthusiast and commission chairman Dennis Moss, the county commission adopted a resolution supporting the concept of an air show, which it slated to launch in 2012. Commissioners even managed to earmark $7.5 million to prepare county land.

"I believe by bringing the International Air Show to Miami, it would attract countless visitors from all around," Moss said, "and would be one of the largest shows of its kind in the Western Hemisphere."

Though congressional leaders supported the plan, the Pentagon rejected it in August 2011. It cited budgetary constraints, security concerns, and "no internal support in the Air Force for the concept." In response, a disappointed Nero said, "I think this is why people are so upset with the federal government. They just don't get it."

That's when the county, led by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, began looking toward the only other airport with a runway long enough to support an air show: TNT. In his 2012 State of the County address, Gimenez said, "We'll continue to work to get the federal support we need to land that show."

In August 2012, Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt, who had experience with the Fort Lauderdale Air Show when he was Broward County administrator, wrote to county aviation officials stating the county's intention to host an air show at the jetport.

Osterholt says TNT may seem remote and certainly has some challenges, but the idea comes from a single source: "desperation."

"We couldn't get the Air Force to put it at Homestead, so this was the alternative," he says. "If the decision by the Air Force doesn't change, then the only possibility we know of is the Everglades Jetport. At least there's no question about [planes flying] over someone's house out there."

The county has long sought ways to squeeze money out of the abandoned jetport. Pilots use it mainly to practice landings, usually as a touchdown-and-go. It is also designated as a potential site to divert or force down hijacked planes. In 2008, a Tallahassee consultant concluded that oil and gas drilling and mineral extraction might earn $7 million annually over a 20-year period. But that didn't go over well. In late 2009, as commissioners were set to discuss drilling, the Miami Herald called the idea "the mother of all dunderhead schemes." At the last minute, Mayor Carlos Alvarez pulled the item from the commission's agenda, and environmentalists cheered.

The next year, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, in a joint proposal with Collier County, suggested ATV trails as part of a larger plan for the land, complete with a visitor center, campgrounds, fishing piers, an archery range, and hiking trails.

Environmentalists called the project a threat to Everglades restoration as well as to the endangered Florida panther and wood stork. Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, told commissioners they couldn't have picked a more sensitive place. "The jetport is a symbol of success in turning back schemes that don't belong in national preserves or protected lands," Farago says. "It is absolutely harebrained."

The state killed that plan in April 2010.

Asked if he is aware of the environmental sensitivity of the jetport as the host for a potential air show, Osterholt laughs.

"Everybody... knows the story of the Everglades Jetport," he says. "But the county does own the property, and it's already being used. It's not like there are weeds growing around it."

Imagine it's January 2017 and you're on your way to the Miami Air Show. You hop onto an air-conditioned bus downtown and cruise west on the Dolphin Expressway, south on Florida's Turnpike, and then west again on Tamiami Trail. You pass Miccosukee Resort & Gaming and continue ahead on a two-lane paved road surrounded by cypress trees. The trip ends 40 minutes later at a wide concrete runway with helipads, a first-aid center, a media studio, stages, emergency-vehicle areas, bathrooms, bleachers, and more. Signs promote sponsors like Visa, Red Bull, Amazon, and Boeing, and a giant Airbus jet sits on the runway as viewers gawk.

You meander through exhibitions, eat from catered food stands, connect to Wi-Fi, and relax in "intimate chalets." Then you look up as a fighter jet rolls, plummets earthward, and does a loop-de-loop.

You're in the middle of the Everglades, so the show is highlighting renewable fuels and solar energy and collecting donations for the park.

"We clearly know how to do it without causing an environmental problem," Osterholt says.

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That's the vision for the Miami International Aerospace Show laid out in internal county memos obtained by New Times. The county is working to get the idea approved by the National Park Service.

Osterholt says he and Mayor Gimenez are "committed to following every opportunity to make it happen." And he contends an air show in Big Cypress could have zero environmental impact. All structures will be "temporary," meaning they will come down after the show ends. Everything will be built on the concrete runway, not in the surrounding wetlands.

"We clearly know how to do it without causing an environmental problem," Osterholt says. "Everything on the site we'll bring and remove."

But Farago says creating infrastructure to handle people and equipment, including utilities, will inevitably disturb the wilderness. "This is a particularly offensive plan... given the battles that were fought," Farago says. "It's really like the county is rubbing the nose of the environmentalists and of citizens who love the Everglades in the muck."

This week, Mayor Gimenez is getting a glimpse of what he hopes will be the old jetport's future. He's in Paris for the air show with a 21-person delegation, among thousands of exhibitors and journalists, tens of thousands of visitors, and hundreds of aircraft. The group is staying at the Crowne Plaza Paris-Republique on a trip that's costing $36,000 — a price tag the mayor's office claims will be mostly covered by sponsors and lobbyists. Though Gimenez attended the Paris Air Show in 2005, before he was elected, it's his first time as mayor and the first time a Miami-Dade mayor is there.

Along for the ride: Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez, PortMiami Director Juan Kuryla, and a host of other top bureaucrats. Commission Chairman Jean Monestime and Commissioner Pepe Diaz are also part of the trip, which has been labeled an "economic development" mission.

According to the invitation letter: "Mission delegates will explore business opportunities and participate in prearranged one-to-one business meetings, receive customized trade briefings, and participate in network meetings with French business leaders, trade and industry agencies, and government officials."

Lobbyists from consulting firm LSN Partners — who have already donated $5,000 to Gimenez's reelection PAC, Miami Dade Residents First — are "platinum" sponsors, with $7,500 contributed to the trip. Maria Molina, president of Nova Consulting, paid $5,000 for a gold sponsorship. Shipping companies CMA CGM and Sifa USA entered at the executive level, for $1,500 each, as did attorney David S. Willig. Some of the delegates will pay their own way.

A draft budget suggests the "mission" isn't costing taxpayers a dime. The nine-day trip's cost, $36,132, is being covered by sponsorships and grants, including a $7,500 Enterprise Florida grant. The average cost for each "mission leader" is $4,061, according to documents obtained from the mayor's office, which includes $500 each for meals and taxis.

"The goal of this mission is to promote Miami-Dade County as an aerospace hub and a leading global business destination," says Beacon Council spokesperson Maria Camacho. "The Paris Air Show provides access to top executives... from all over the world."

Last year, the Paris Air Show's commissioner general, Louis Le Portz, was in Miami on a paid three-day visit to examine the old jetport and provide a comprehensive evaluation of its potential for an air show. The Miami-Dade Aviation Department and Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau split the $12,000 consulting fee.

"The job to do is huge," Le Portz concluded after that trip. "We have to stay modest the first time and grow year after year. Of course you have my help (even free of charge). In less than 10 years [the] Miami Air Show will be a must for the global aerospace industry."

The site's runway, taxiways, and shoulders all got his OK. In fact, the remote location of the jetport was a boon for an air show, he said, because there were no homes to be damaged in case of a crash. But Le Portz did write that entry to the remote site must be "studied rapidly."

Osterholt says the estimated $9 million cost of the Miami International Aerospace Show would be paid through a revenue-sharing agreement between the company that ultimately manages the show and the airport authority. Miami's version would launch at a projected 20 percent the size of the Paris Air Show. "The plan is to start off slow," Osterholt says. "It will take years before this thing ramps up."

Joe Napoli, the aviation department's chief of staff and senior policy adviser, has been working on plans for the air show since early last year, when he stepped into his job. He says the "number one priority since the beginning has been minimizing or having no environmental impact."

An initial concept of the air show drafted in September by Napoli states the event would need a "very limited footprint."

"While I certainly understand the environmental concerns, we have a solid story," Napoli writes. "In reality, the Air Show will not be doing any new building [and] will be limiting traffic and footprint by the use of buses for transportation versus personal vehicles."

Osterholt says the site's environmental sensitivity has also been a top priority for the mayor. But Gimenez did not respond to New Times' calls or written questions about environmentalists' concerns. Indeed, Tropical Audubon, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Everglades say they have not heard from the county about an air show.

At the May 8 county meeting where the issue was brought up, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava requested a report on the potential environmental impact of the event. She has not yet received a response.

"I'm not satisfied, and I want more information," Levine Cava says. "I am eager to receive whatever information is available about the environmental concerns. I would hope there would be a conversation in the community."

Osterholt says it "doesn't make sense" to involve environmentalists in the discussion at this early stage. But Farago says environmentalists should be involved from the beginning. "People forget what the whole purpose of environmental protection was about in the beginning:... avoid any of the sort of long-term consequences of these short-term economic development schemes."

Others question if it really makes sense to hold an air show so far from downtown Miami, off a two-lane highway that's not fit to handle high-volume traffic. Attendees would need to drive each day from Miami to get to the exhibitions — some 55 miles each way. The Paris Air Show is a 20-minute drive from downtown and accessible by public transportation.

But Napoli says the secluded location is a way to distinguish Miami from other cities. "The remoteness is certainly a challenge, but we think that's attractive too," he says. "Holding an event in an environmentally sensitive area is unique."

On a recent afternoon, nature photographer Roger Hammer drives his tan Chevy Silverado pickup along Tamiami Trail while recounting the many happy years he's spent exploring wild Florida. Originally from Cocoa Beach, Hammer worked on a shrimp farm near Turkey Point beginning in 1968. He then became a Miami-Dade park manager, a photographer, and a Tropical Audubon Society board member. He now lives in Homestead. Hammer has photographed 88 of Florida's 108 native orchids and discovered two new species. He helped New Yorker writer Susan Orlean as she researched her bestselling book The Orchid Thief.

"If they wanted to go into the wilderness to die, if that's their wish, we should let them," Hammer says.

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He says he has lost patience over the years for the "major boondoggles thrust upon the citizenry of South Florida" — from Islandia to the proposed "Port of Seadade," which would have dredged Biscayne Bay into a deep-water port, to the proposed air shows. And he knows there will be more.

"I'm like Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino," he says. "'Get off my lawn!'"

When Hammer wants to get away, he embarks on days-long adventures in his canoe through the Everglades and Big Cypress. His last solo outing lasted ten days.

Last summer, he provided wilderness training to the contestants of the Discovery Channel show Naked and Afraid before they entered the Everglades. He has been contacted by families of those who disappeared into the swamp to take their own lives. Hammer recommends leaving them be. "If they wanted to go into the wilderness to die, if that's their wish, we should let them," he says.

"This is the only part of Miami-Dade County where you can go to be alone in peaceful solitude," Hammer says about the Everglades. "And sometimes it feels like the county wants to make it another Miami Beach."

At a nondescript location near the Oasis Ranger Station, about ten miles from TNT, Hammer pulls off the road. It's a prime spot to catch sight of a Florida butterfly orchid, he says. The gorgeous flowers begin appearing in May and remain in bloom for a few months. They thrive in the warm, moist conditions of the cypress and pond apple habitat of Big Cypress.

Unfortunately, Hammer says, many orchid species are threatened or endangered due to illegal overcollection and changing environmental conditions. As he walks through the cypress trees, Hammer is convinced he'll see an orchid right away.

"There's got to be one in here," he says repeatedly as he continues farther into the swamp. "This would be the perfect habitat."

For the next 40 minutes, he looks left and right, up and down, sure an orchid will appear. He walks and walks, but he never finds one.

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Jessica Weiss