An aerial view of some of the 11,000 acres recently acquired by the South Florida Water Management District. Source: Patrick Iler of Family Lands Remembered
Have you ever ridden on an airboat? I have, several times. I think it’s one of those quintessential Florida experiences, like acquiring your first machete, confronting your first flying cockroach, or rolling your eyes for the first time at the Legislature’s shenanigans.
Airboats are the fastest way to zoom across the vast and watery expanse of Florida’s most famous marsh, the Everglades. But they TEND TO BE PRETTY NOISY, so pretend I’m shouting at you for the rest of this column.
The shallow skiffs with the monster motors became popular for use in the River of Grass in the 1940s, but they became identified with it in the public mind in 1967. That’s when the TV show “Gentle Ben” showed a park ranger played by Dennis Weaver patrolling his beat aboard an airboat, accompanied by his son and his son’s pet bear.
Airboat tour companies are clustered around the Everglades the way taxis cluster around major airports. Both are angling to reel in those tourist dollars. But now, some of the tour operators are afraid they’ll be forced out of business by an unusual threat.
WBBH-TV had the story last week, headlined: “Airboat industry on alert after state land acquisition in Florida Everglades.”
That last part is the good news: For $29.5 million, the state of Florida signed on the line that is dotted, as they say in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to buy more than 11,000 undeveloped acres in Collier County west of State Road 29 and south of U.S. 41.
The people who wrangled this slice of old Florida into public hands dubbed it “the Green Heart of the Everglades.”
“More than a quarter of the land is mangrove habitat, critical for water quality and storm protection, while the uplands are home to black bears, Florida panthers, and 37 other federally listed species in the region,” the Naples Daily News reported.
“It’s a part of Florida many people don’t even know exists,” said Ernie Cox of Family Lands Remembered, the company that helped arrange the state acquisition. (In case you’re wondering, yes, the company name is a nod to the Florida-centric Patrick Smith novel “A Land Remembered.”)
The airboat captains of Everglades City sure know it exists. They’ve been using it for their tours for year and wonder if they can continue.
The purchase brings up two questions: How do you best manage this taxpayer-owned property so it’s not degraded? And does that mean airboats are still allowed to roar around over it?
“We were very concerned when we heard about it, that they were purchasing the land, that they were going to shut down the industry completely,” Capt. Josh Minton of Everglades City Airboat Tours told the TV station.
People who have been driving their airboats over that area for generations “don’t want to hear ‘no,’” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association and an avid kayaker. “They want access everywhere, anywhere, anytime. But these are now public lands, and they should be managed for the benefit of the resource.”
Steampunk, sparrows, and speed bumps
Tigertail started running the family airboat when he was just 7, sitting on his dad’s lap as he steered the speedy craft down a canal. But airboats have been in use a lot longer than that — more than a century, in fact.
Aviation pioneer, Hialeah Racetrack originator, and Opa-Locka founder Glenn Curtiss debuted a steampunk-look closed-cabin model on Biscayne Bay in 1920.
Tigertail’s family wasn’t far behind. At some point in the 1920s, he told me, they attached a motorcycle motor with an airplane propeller to the back of a canoe.
By 1947, his grandfather had finally acquired a real airboat, he said, but it wasn’t for transporting tourists.
“It was to go out hunting,” he told me. “Grandpa said he’d go out hunting gators and fishing. Frogs were a major thing too. We’d sell them to the fish markets and later on to the restaurants.”
By then another veteran Everglades frog hunter, John Cooper, had begun selling tourists rides on his “interesting looking” airboat. That eventually led to the creation of Coopertown, the original Tamiami Trail airboat tour company.
Over the next few decades airboat tour companies proliferated. They spread out along the Tamiami Trail and soon increased the size of their boats to accommodate all the tourists shouting, “Shut up and take my money!”
People visiting South Florida from around the globe lined up for tickets, sometimes returning for repeat visits. Fans relished the rush of speeding across the shallow water, as well as the views of a part of the state that looks so different from the cities, beaches, and theme parks.
The airboat trips could be dangerous. In 2017, Miami New Times published a story that said in the previous three years, state officials had documented 75 airboat accidents. Seven people died and 102 passengers were seriously injured.
The story cited a lack of any state regulation over the airboat industry, so in 2018 the Legislature finally passed new regulations. The law requires anyone who will be operating a commercial airboat with at least one passenger on board to take a boater safety course, a first aid course, and a course on how to operate an airboat.
Even the new regulations don’t guarantee safety. In August two airboats from Wild Florida collided on a lake south of Orlando, injuring 13 people.
Not even the airboat captains are safe from tragedy. In 2012, a tour captain out of Everglades City lost his left hand to an alligator. Witnesses said he’d been hanging a fish over the side, trying to lure a gator closer to his camera-wielding customers. The 9-foot gator snagged the fish as well as the hand that was holding it.
Killing the gator to retrieve the hand and reattach it didn’t work. Meanwhile, the captain was charged with illegally feeding an alligator.
At times, the boats have served as lifesavers in dangerous situations. In 1972, when an Eastern Airlines jet crashed in the Everglades, rescuers could reach the survivors only via airboat or helicopter. Last year, an airboat tour company rescued people stranded in their homes by Hurricane Ian.
They’ve also proven to be important tools for scientists studying life in the Everglades. My first airboat trip, back in 1999, was to accompany a biologist headed for a remote colony of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, one of the rarest birds in the world.
The boats are not exactly animal-friendly, though. On another airboat trip, a 2009 parade of politicos, the airboat I was riding in thumped over something that felt like a speed bump. The pilot said it was a gator that didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
Even the mineral rights
The tour operators based in Everglades City had two options for their routes, according to Cox.
Some of them stayed on navigable waterways, which are considered the property of the state, Cox said. But others, he said, leased land from the companies that owned the property the state just bought. Those owners have the same name as the county they’re in: Collier.
That’s because their founder was Barron Gift Collier Sr., the namesake of Collier County. After he made his fortune up North selling (of all things) streetcar advertising, he invested heavily in Florida real estate, acquiring a million acres.
The Colliers’ website brags that he brought the area its first telephone service, first railroad, first newspapers, and first bus company, not to mention building the Tamiami Trail. More than 76,000 acres of Collier land wound up becoming Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974.
There was one catch, though: Collier’s descendants hung onto the mineral rights, which has led to a lot of controversy every time some would-be wildcatter tries play Jed Clampett and find some Texas Tea.
The feds have talked about acquiring the Collier mineral rights since the 1990s, with appraisals ranging from $5 million to more than $400 million, but so far it hasn’t happened.
Cox said that prize is what initially drew his client, the Tallahassee-based non-profit WildLandscapes International, into negotiations with the officials of the various Collier companies.
They wanted to help the taxpayers at last land those mineral rights to Big Cypress and nearby Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. They’re still working on that, he said.
But in the meantime, they decided to go after the chunk of undeveloped Collier acreage that lies between Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Everglades National Park.
There was some urgency involved. Collier’s descendants have not been shy about trying to build entire new towns in places occupied by panthers and other rare wildlife.
“The Colliers, they’re aggressive in their business,” Schwartz said.
Cox and his clients managed to persuade them to sell this property. And when Cox presented the option to buy to the South Florida Water Management District, it included not just the land but also the mineral rights under the land, he said.
But without their Collier connection, the airboat operators who had leased land there were now on the outside looking in.
More than a thrill ride
As soon as the state bought the Collier land, the airboat companies that had leases could no longer claim guaranteed access to that property, Cox told me.
“Those leases ended,” he said.
Everglades City officials offered to take charge of the newly acquired property from the water district board, Cox said. The city would then charge the airboat operators a small fee for access to pay for maintaining the wild land.
But the airboat operators rejected the city. They wanted to deal directly with the state.
In the meantime, kayakers and other people who’d like to use that property for recreation have hopes of breaking the stranglehold the airboat operators have long enjoyed, Schwartz said.
The airboats “are loud, they scare off the wildlife and they’re not compatible with paddling,” he said. “There’s no question that airboats are a high-impact recreational activity.”
The state needs to create a no-motor zone that keeps the airboats away from the people who take a less intense approach, Schwartz said.
“Kayakers and airboats shouldn’t be in the same waterway,” Cox said. “But the fact is, those airboat operators take out so many people to see these lands, so they’re important. We should support that.”
He said he’d been talking to the tour operators to see how they could continue using the former Collier property while still making room for new users.
Here’s the problem: Airboat tours have been operating for generations and are an important part of the local culture and economy. But once the taxpayers buy the land, it’s supposed to be open for everyone, not just the people who’ve been using it all this time.
I called Everglades City Airboat Tours, and while I didn’t get to talk to Capt. Minton, I did reach another one of the captains, Steven Lenz. He’s the son-in-law of the owner, Bruce Minton. As you might expect, he was a staunch defender of the tour businesses.
“We’re an educational tour, so we’re more than just a thrill ride,” he told me.
As for the noise level, he said their blades are muffled so far down, “it’s like driving a Suburban.” (I asked why they couldn’t switch to electric motors, which tend to be quieter, and he pointed out that electric vehicles don’t mix well with brackish water.)
Lenz said he was happy to see the land would be protected from the rampant development swallowing so much of Southwest Florida these days.
“I don’t want to see a Walmart on the corner of U.S. 29 and U.S. 41,” he said.
But he said it’s important for the airboats to continue carrying people out into those trackless marshes, especially people who otherwise would never catch a glimpse of such a watery wilderness.
“There are not many places like this left in the world,” Lenz told me. “If we show them these mangrove jungles, we can teach them to protect them.”
The water district has scheduled a public meeting about all this for next Tuesday at the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples.
The meeting notice says the agency is “committed to working with local stakeholders as we develop an interim land management plan, and we encourage your input on this important project.”
I am hopeful that everyone can work out their differences and find a way to protect this property while also making it accessible. But that may be akin to hoping that the Florida Legislature will stop fooling around with culture war silliness and instead focus on things that are actually important. Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to use my machete to kill a flying cockroach.
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