Postcards From the Edge

Peace and quiet, great fishing, tax-free land. Welcome to the Everglades, where "hunt camps" are enjoying a new lease on life.

Not so fast, said then-attorney general Richard Ervin. The commission doesn't hold title to the land, so it has no right to kick the campers out, Ervin opined in a 1959 letter. Only the agencies that owned the land could do that. But the state never showed any inclination to boot the squatters. While the Flood Control District toyed with the idea and even set up a permitting system to keep track of the camps, the agency never took action either.

Fred Davis, director of land stewardship for the water management district, says the continued existence of the camps speaks to the ambivalence of his agency. The water management district, notes Davis, can prohibit any activity that's contrary to their mission of storing and moving water through conservation areas. "Based on the fact that there are 65 camps out there, we have either deemed that they don't interfere, or we have been unable to prevent or remove the camps," says Davis. "It's partially that we haven't tried, and it's partially because of the influence of some of the folks who are in those camps."

After decades of existing in a legal gray area, the camps are now legit thanks to such influence. A camp owner named Jim Beaty recently had a run-in with the Department of Environmental Protection over his place in Conservation Area 2. Beaty had a friend by the name of Billy Bowman, a politically connected Palm Beach County rancher, who knew a sugar lobbyist by the name of David Goodlett. Neither Beaty nor Bowman returned calls for this story, and Goodlett says he never knew exactly why Beaty ran afoul of the DEP, which also wouldn't return calls on this issue. "I only know that there was a problem going on and there was some chance he would have to vacate," says Goodlett.

Goodlett was sympathetic to the cause. He grew up in Belle Glade and spent much of his childhood in a backcountry "house" his father built on Captiva Island. "My favorite time in my life was the time I spent on my stilt house with my father," he says. "There was a warm and fuzzy feeling I had for folks who have these properties."

Sugar lobbying has taught Goodlett a thing or two about how to get things done in Tallahassee. In the waning days of the legislative session this past spring, he searched for a way to help Bowman by helping Beaty. He discovered that Florida Forever, the legislation aimed at buying and preserving land for public use, contained language to protect "stilt houses" built over public waters in Charlotte Harbor and other "tidal" areas around the state. Goodlett's first thought was simply to broaden the language of the legislation to include "non-tidal" areas, thus covering the Everglades camps. He worked with the DEP to do just that, but the changes didn't fly with environmentalists. David Gluckman, a Tallahassee lobbyist with the Florida Wildlife Federation, says the addition would have legalized every illegal dock, dike, and fence built on state-owned wetlands. "That is something we wouldn't support," he adds.

So Goodlett narrowed the language to specify structures built in water conservation areas, which suited the environmental faction. "I checked around and discovered there weren't a lot of folks all that concerned about the structures in the water conservation areas," says Gluckman, noting that no one had ever brought up the issue with him before. "I have never heard any environmental folks express any concern about [the camps]."

The amendment passed without discussion, and Florida Forever was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush on June 7.

Now hunt camps are eligible for 20-year leases from the DEP or the South Florida Water Management District, depending on who owns the land on which the camps squat. The catch is that camp owners -- whose camps don't have addresses and who therefore haven't been officially informed about the leases -- must identify themselves to the water management district by January 1, 2000. It will then be up to the water management district to determine on whose land the camps are located.

It's the end of an era. No new camp can be built, and the owners of existing camps will have to comply with the terms of the lease. No one knows exactly what those terms are, as the DEP has yet to come up with specifics such as cost, sanitation, and building-code compliance (which it must do by January 1). What is certain is that the era of wide-open Everglades building has passed.

"If [camp owners] don't come in, they will not be issued a lease," says Davis. "And then they will be removed, I imagine. That's the other side of the sword."

Eason throttles back the big Continental engine and glides around Jim Willard's camp until Willard notices and waves from his kitchen window. Then he cuts the engine and docks. "You want to take a tour?" asks Willard.

Indeed.
There's no granite dome and not a minaret in sight, but it's not hard to see why the locals call Willard's place "the Taj Mahal." The main building has the look and feel of a hunting lodge, with wood ceilings, a fireplace, and a big comfy couch. Two TVs hang on brackets on either side of the fireplace, fed by the big satellite dish outside. Adjoining the living room is a kitchen complete with dishwasher, refrigerator, sink, and stove. Sliding glass doors open onto the wraparound deck, which leads to the bunkhouse, a structure distinguished by more fine woodwork. The place befits a man like Willard, who owns his own construction company. "We hand-built those bunks," he notes with pride. "Ain't nothing in this place store-bought." Each bunk sleeps two, and the place has four other bedrooms, so a party of 10 to 12 people wouldn't be a squeeze.

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