One of Florida’s most quintessential ways of getting around the wetlands, the airboat, will soon be banned in the state’s Everglades National Park. A government plan that’s been in the works for years is set to end private air boating in the park.
For decades, Florida glades-men have been hydroplaning their propeller-powered crafts through the acres of saw grass and mangroves, sighting alligators and introducing visitors to the swamp’s natural beauty.
Established as a national park in 1934, hunting was banned in the area with the exception of one small sliver of land known as the “eastern extension.” That land became part of the 1.5 million acre park in 1989. An act of Congress that same year mandated that the US Park Service formulate a management plan that included the government buying up an additional 9,000 parcels of land and holding more than 50 public meetings. With those plans finally ready to be implemented, the end is near for private air boating within the park.
The phasing out of the air boats does make an exception and that’s for anyone who was at least 16 years old in 1989 and an active air boater. That’s anyone over 42-years-old today, but we’re not sure how you’ll need to prove you were an “active airboater.” For anyone else, just a few months remain before the ban takes effect.
Aside from those grandfathered in, the only allowed air boating that can continue will be four commercial air boat tour operators who will work as contractors for the park and cover the eastern section. Park officials will regulate the number of runs they can do.
So why are they banning the airboats? Park officials say that the threat to the swamp’s fragile environment has grown larger with an increasing number of tourists visiting every year. Last year an estimated 14,000 people toured the park by air boat, compared to a mere 2,500 back in 1990.
These delicate wetlands are being eroded by the air boat traffic, according to the Florida Biodiversity Project. That group doesn’t think that the long-anticipated ban goes far enough and has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to close the entire preserve to all air boats, swamp buggies and ATV vehicles until their operators can conclusively prove they are not violating the Clean Water Act. So far the agency has not responded to the group’s petition.
Many long-time air boaters view the coming change as a sad end to a special piece of Florida culture and heritage, while environmentalists insist that the ban is the only hope for preventing permanent destruction of the Everglade’s wetland ecosystem. But unless a future Congress reverses the ban, these air boaters will soon have to operate elsewhere – perhaps on state lands or those controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Some current air boaters have defiantly predicted that they will become “air boat outlaws,” speeding through the park while on the lookout for park rangers who will try to enforce the rules from their own air boats.