Today, South Florida airboat owners like Keith Price, Don Onstad and Charlie Erwin range freely throughout the East Everglades in their roaring, slough-skimming craft as they have for decades.
They buzz through the sawgrass to a lone pond apple tree they call the “Christmas Tree” — a makeshift memorial decorated with stuffed animals and topped by an American flag where several of their departed friends’ ashes have been scattered by propeller wash. They hunt for artifacts on tree islands like the Duck Club — named for a ramshackle cabin built in the 1950s that’s reputed to have hosted former President Dwight Eisenhower for duck hunting and card playing. They rescue stranded airboaters, escort Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops on slough slogs and pick up countless party balloons that float in from town.
“We are the protectors of the Everglades,” Erwin said.
But maybe not for much longer. The three Gladesmen — all longtime members of the airboat Association of Florida ranging in age from 60 to 72 — will be among the last private airboaters to operate in the vast marsh south of Tamiami Trail if officials at Everglades National Park get their way.
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The park’s proposed general management plan for the next 15 to 20 years calls for an end to all private airboating in the East Everglades once the “grandfathers” who operate there now have died. The region was added to the national park in 1989, and whoever can prove he or she had a registered airboat in Miami-Dade County back then could obtain a non-transferrable, non-renewable permit to operate on designated trails only for the remainder of their lives. Park officials estimate 1,000 to 2,000 airboaters would be affected.
As for longtime commercial airboat tour operators along the Trail — Coopertown, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park — the park proposes to buy their properties, turn them into concessionaires and confine their operations to a “front country zone” of about 10,000 to 11,000 acres just south of the Trail. If the park’s preferred plan is adopted sometime next year, then the rest of the East Everglades — more than 80,000 acres — would be designated as wilderness with no mechanical propulsion — even bicycles — allowed.
Park planner Fred Herling says the aim is to strike a balance between the desires of airboaters and other visitors such as paddlers and hikers.
“We acknowledge private airboating and commercial airboating is an important way for people to experience the Everglades,” Herling said. “And there are people who want to experience it in a more wilderness way.”
But long-timers such as Price, Erwin and Onstad argue that the region hasn’t truly been a wilderness for a very long time, that it has been hunted, fished, frogged and farmed for centuries starting with Native Americans and culminating with the Gladesmen, whose culture has evolved over the past 100 years.
“This place is special,” Price, the 60-year-old president of the airboat association, said. “I have pictures of my daughter climbing the trees. My daughter is 40 now and still climbs the trees. They will put up markers and boundaries and tell us we can’t go there because it’s virgin land. There’s something that’s been here longer than the park’s been here and that’s Gladesmen culture. We don’t want to destroy something we want to share with our children and grandchildren. We’re just trying to hang onto our rights.”
And private airboat owners like Price are not the only ones.
All three commercial airboat tour operators along Tamiami Trail acknowledge the National Park Service has approached them over the past month with offers to buy their properties. But no deals have been closed yet, and the business owners are wary of becoming concessionaires, paying rent to the park service with little say in how their day-to-day operations will be conducted.
Going in, the tour operators already were aggravated by being told to cease operations during the federal government shutdown last October. And before that, road and bridge construction on the Trail — aimed at unblocking the flow of fresh water south from Lake Okeechobee through the ’Glades to Florida Bay — deterred some visitors from their attractions. Rick Farace, who runs Everglades Safari Park, says he sees no more water flowing south under the new bridge than before, and that it seems to be going north instead.
“The government can’t even run itself,” Farace said.
There’s actually a scientific explanation for what Farace observed, according to South Florida Water Management District spokesman Gabe Margasak: “It's a good observation. The situation is possible when the northeast Shark River Slough water levels are higher than in the L-29 canal [north of Tamiami Trail]. The district isn't moving any water out of the area. The water is equalizing itself because of recent rainfall. It doesn't happen often, but it happens.”
Erwin, secretary of the airboat club, is frustrated by the impending limitations on airboat access to a place he has enjoyed since boyhood.
“You ate whatever you found out there,” he said. “You’d stick a couple frogs, kill a deer. Anything the park does, they kick out the people who truly love it and let in snowbirds. You get on your little boardwalk and take pictures. With the park service, it’s all about parks for profit.”
Price and his fellow club members — there are about 200 — hope to convince lawmakers to keep the East Everglades open to airboating.
“We need recognition, bringing representatives and senators out here and making them aware of what’s going on,” Price said. “Laws are made by man; they can be changed by man. We won’t let this Gladesmen culture die.”