MIAMI — 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 an American flag where several of their departed friends' ashes have been scattered by propeller wash. 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 — will be among the last private airboaters to operate in the vast marsh south of Tamiami Trail if Everglades National Park officials get their way.
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 having a registered airboat in Miami-Dade County back then could obtain a nontransferrable, nonrenewable permit to operate on designated trails 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 — 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.
"We acknowledge private airboating and commercial airboating is an important way for people to experience the Everglades," he 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 Gladesmen.
"This place is special," said Price, president of the airboat association. "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. No deals have been closed yet, and business owners are wary of becoming concessionaires.
Going in, tour operators already were aggravated by being told to cease operations during the government shutdown last October.
"The government can't even run itself," said Rick Farace, who runs Everglades Safari Park.
Price and his fellow club members — 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."