the sweeping sawgrass of Everglades National Park are sights and sounds that
draw a million visitors every year: alligators and airboats.
Native Americans paddled dugout canoes through the shallow waters of the “river
of grass” past the gators, snakes, blue herons and egrets. In the last
century, Florida’s "gladesmen" invented the airboat, making
traversing the swamps far more efficient. South of the Tamiami Trail, gladesmen
would hydroplane the propeller-powered airboats through the mangroves and
sawgrass, hunting alligator and frogs or just enjoying the natural beauty of
taking away something I’ve done for 60 years ..."
Jesse Kennon, 'gladesman'
Everglades National Park was established in 1934, hunting was banned along with
motorized vehicles, except in one small sliver of the park known as the Eastern
Extension. Even though it became part of the 1.5 million-acre park in
1989, air boating has continued. But that 1989 act of Congress also
mandated the U.S. Park Service come up with a comprehensive management plan
which included the government buying up 9,000 parcels of land and holding
nearly 50 public meetings over the years. Now, that plan is ready to be implemented,
and that means the end of private air boating in Everglades National Park.
heartbreaking for me," said Keith Price, president of the Airboat
Association of Florida. "I’ve spent my lifetime sharing the
for Price, the phasing out of the airboats will grandfather in those who can
prove they were at least 16 years old and active air boaters as of
1989. Those gladesmen -- and it is still unclear how many qualify -- will
still be able to do what they’ve always done. For everyone else, they only
have a few months left.
robbing our children and grandchildren of the culture and the heritage that is
going on here,” lamented Price.
Park Service says don’t blame Florida’s premier national park, the largest east
of the Rockies, blame Washington.
from the grandfathered gladesmen, the only air boating that will continue to be
allowed in the eastern section of the Park will be four commercial air boat
tour operators. They’ll no longer be independent, but will instead work as
contractors for the park. Park officials will regulate their concessions and
the number of runs they do.
Coopertown Air Boat Tours—the oldest in the business, operating since
1945—73-year-old Jesse Kennon is lukewarm on the whole thing.
taking away something I’ve done for 60 years and now saying, ‘Okay, you’re
going to do what I want you to do,'" he said. "I don’t mind working
with the park, but I don’t like to work FOR the park.
official phase out of the private airboats goes into effect next year. The
gladesmen fear this is a step towards the eventual demise of what’s left of
what they consider a critical piece of Florida's culture.
a future Congress reverses the rules, the gladesmen can either airboat elsewhere,
on state lands or those controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Or,
they can become what several defiantly have predicted: Everglades airboat
outlaws, speeding through the Everglades, always on the lookout for Park
Rangers on their own airboats.
Keating joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in March 2004 and currently serves as
FNC's Miami-based correspondent.