Published Monday, September 3, 2001
Hunters could soon be
in Everglades National Park
Starting with the opening of archery season this week, rangers will mount what they call an `education campaign.'
BY CURTIS MORGAN
Hunting is illegal in Everglades National Park but for the last dozen years rangers have largely ignored the sharp echo of rifles and shotguns across a swath of northeastern sawgrass.
That's because the East Everglades was really part of the park only on paper, a line on a map outlining nearly 110,000 acres of remote West Miami-Dade that Congress added to the park in 1989.
Much of the property remained in private hands, and life pretty much went on as it had for generations. Meaning hunters, banned everywhere else in the park, glided over the marsh in airboats and told tall tales in cabins hidden in the maze of jungled tree islands.
Now, with some 95 percent of the area purchased, park managers finally are ready to fully claim the East Everglades. Starting with the opening of archery season this week, rangers will mount what they call an ``education campaign'' to ease hunters outside park boundaries.
Hunters, a few who have stalked snorting feral hog and skittish white-tailed deer in the sawgrass before the park even existed, view it as yet another assault on their heritage as Glades pioneers. There's already worry that the dozen or so remaining rustic camps might soon be put to the torch, a half-century or more of swamp legend lost in the smoke.
``People aren't happy about it,'' said Tom Dobson, a member of the Airboat Association of Florida, a sportsmen's group whose 10-acre compound off Tamiami Trial is at the northern edge of the expansion area. ``Personally, I hate to see this right taken away from us. Some of the members have been using those camps for decades.''
Jack Moller, a hunters'
activist and member of the Florida Wildlife Federation, agrees. ``I
think the Park Service has much interest in the culture of the
CAMPS' FATE UP IN AIR
While park managers said they intend to halt hunting, the future of the old camps remains unsettled. James Sanborn, the chief park ranger for the East Everglades district, said there would not be any quick razing of the old shacks.
``We have no intention of doing that,'' he said. ``Rumors fly, and people's worst fears are always coming to the surface.''
The Everglades Expansion Act of 1989 was a landmark, elevating the decline of the fabled River of Grass to national attention and setting the stage for the $8 billion restoration plan Congress approved last year. The purchase of the East Everglades was designed to create a buffer from the rapidly expanding urban area to the west and to protect Northeast Shark River Slough, the headwaters of the park.
But actually acquiring the land, owned by an estimated 8,900 people, including many foreign nationals who'd bought soggy acres sight unseen, has been a slow slog through records and lawsuits.
Just five years ago, when Sanborn began patrolling the East Everglades, only about half the land had been acquired. Now only a few hundred isolated tracts remain in private hands and they, too, aside from perhaps a parcel or two, are likely to be acquired by year's end.
While hunting has always been illegal on park property, rangers never aggressively enforced the prohibition in the East Everglades because of the confusion over what Sanborn called the ``checkerboard'' of land ownership. Hunting on open private land is legal, though technically requiring the permission of the owner.
This hunting season, said Bill Wright, the park's chief ranger, the message won't be confrontational but educational. Rangers, he said, will begin letting hunters know that their days in the park are numbered.
``Next year, we're
to have to step up enforcement,'' he said.
Though they knew the day would come, the decision still frustrates hunters. They're already mired in a battle for access to 147,000 acres of land in the nearby Big Cypress National Preserve, which does allow hunting. But environmentalists, charging that off-road vehicles have ravaged the landscape, want them kept out of the preserve tract, which was bought in 1988.
``It's very painful to lose it,'' said Barbara Jean Powell of the Everglades Coordinating Council, which represents several hunting and recreational groups. Powell, of Miami, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit by a national hunters' rights group challenging restrictions on off-road vehicles in the Big Cypress. ``There are a lot of recreational opportunities that are going to be lost forever.''
It's hard to pin down
many hunters still frequent the East Everglades.
LOSS OF PREY
Jesse Kennon, owner of the venerable Tamiami Trail airboat tour attraction known as Coopertown, said hunters have dwindled to a handful, not so much because of the park's acquisition but because the prey nearly vanished.
Kennon says kids on four-wheel vehicles raided the area during a drought in 1985, wrecking some camps and killing off many deer and pigs.
But the area still remains popular with many, particularly at the airboat association.
As part of the 1989 expansion deal, association members were granted lifetime use of the area for airboats, which also are banned elsewhere in the park, but Congress drew the line on hunting.
While members would like to keep the area open to hunting, the biggest concern seems to be the fate of the old camps.
To outsiders, they might not look like much. One of the grander cabins, known as the Duck Club, is ramshackle by suburban standards with its bent and rusting tin roof, broken windows and weathered planks.
More than a bit spooky,
sits high on a buggy hardwood hammock, its green paint blending into
thick foliage. Webs frame the porch, occupied by golden orb spiders
legs long enough to span a baseball. Inside the lockless door, it's hot
and dirty, the bowls of two toilets encrusted with something not worth
inspecting, perhaps just rust.
`THE CROWNED JEWEL'
But a homage on the airboat association's website, www.aaof.com, describes the Duck Club as ``the crowned jewel of the East Everglades.'' And considering its age (built in 1950) and location (``in the middle of nowhere!!'' the website points out) the cabin is a marvel. It's three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, two bathrooms, plenty of closet space, all fashioned by hand from heavy-duty woods strong enough to weather a half-century in a bug-infested swamp.
Like other camps sprinkled across the East Everglades, it also has a long and colorful history. Originally built for the Miami Rod and Reel Club, it reputedly hosted President Dwight Eisenhower, who, the website says, did some hunting and card playing there.
Kennon, who uses the Duck Club most often, takes crews there for modeling spreads and movies, the most recent being the straight-to-video bomb Held for Ransom with Dennis Hopper as a psycho kidnapper.
Kennon believes the connection to the old cabins has less to do with hunting than socializing.
``In a way, it's a lot
Stiltsville,'' he said. ``The camps provide the same thing out here.''
A tribute to a camp called Crandon's Hammock, the airboat association website waxes downright poetic on that point: ``As the owners of the hammocks are forced to sell and the land is gobbled up by the [National Park Service], the old camps will be burned. All the pranks, kids laughing, mud fights, fishing expeditions, scary campfire stories, life-long friendships, our heritage, burned to the ground.''
The park dismisses such concerns. In fact, though some cabin owners don't own the land their buildings are on, Sanborn said the park is weighing compensating them as well.
Any decisions on what to do with the shacks are likely to be at least two years off and will come only after the park rewrites its general management rules, a process that could start around the end of the year and would include numerous public hearings, said Assistant Chief Ranger Phil Selleck.
At least one of the options on the table is the idea of keeping some of the cabins, though how or if they might be used also remains undecided.
``That is an idea that people have been knocking around,'' he said.
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