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.

Beyond the bunkhouse is a separate bathroom complete with toilet and shower, and behind that is the shed, where a 30-kilowatt diesel generator hums along, supplying the juice. Dual air conditioners keep everything nice andcool.

In the event that guests choose to arrive by air -- and important, politically connected guests do every year -- Willard has them covered. Twenty yards to the north of the main building is the helicopter pad. "We've had a lot of Washington people out here," hesays.

The camp is designed to be as maintenance-free as possible, and it's built to last. Willard's plan is to have it handed down from generation to generation. "This is something my grandkids and their kids will be able to enjoy," he says. "It will be left tothem."

Swamp Place West: Jim Eason on the approach to his backcountry getaway...
Melissa Jones
Swamp Place West: Jim Eason on the approach to his backcountry getaway...
...where the accommodations are rustic, the food is hearty, and the view is commanding
Melissa Jones
...where the accommodations are rustic, the food is hearty, and the view is commanding

Back on the boat, Eason slows down for a peek at an undistinguished-looking camp known as "Fountain Blue," then passes a few places the names of which are lost in the din of the engine. At "Our Camp" he cuts the throttle and drifts in. The camp is obscured by tall weeds. But three airboats are parked at the dock out front, so somebody's home. Sure enough the occupants come trudging down the dock, as if to reproach Eason for intruding on their weekend. Instead, they offer an invitation. "You guys hungry?" one of them asks. "We got some steaks. Filet mignon. We can't eat itall."

There's an ethos in the swamps that's hard for a city dweller to comprehend. Everybody waves at passing airboats. Approaching other people's dwellings is OK, even encouraged. Neighbors trust one another. By tradition the camps are left open, a gesture that harks back to the days before CB radios and cell phones. Back then, if your airboat or swamp buggy broke down, it could be a couple days before someone happened by. In the meantime you were welcome to take refuge at the nearest camp, as long as you didn't steal or make amess.

But hang out long enough and you'll discover the camp owners are also sensitive, even a bit nervous, as if they're getting away with something they'd rather not see inprint.

The heretofore dicey relationship between camp owners and state officials goes a long way toward explaining this skittishness. But the media hasn't served them well either. A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times about the lease deal, for example, stressed that the camps are "illegal." They're not, as no law has ever been passed banning them. It's more accurate to say, as did one water management district official, the camps are "alegal."

Generally, coverage of people who recreate in the Everglades has been skewed, says Barbara Powell of the Everglades Coordinating Council, an umbrella group made up of South Florida sportsmen's clubs. "We call it 'getting gutshot.'" The council represents clubs for airboat, hunting, and track-vehicle enthusiasts, many of whom are also hunt-camp owners. Powell politely declined to cooperate for this story based on the council's past experiences with reporters, who she feels tend to portray her constituents as rednecks out to terrorize wildlife and tear up vegetation. "It's been our experience that the press has not treated us kindly," says Powell. "We have just been stabbed in the back so many times by reporters who say they want to be balanced."

Camp owners have also taken heat on environmental issues. Most camps are too primitive to have septic tanks, holding tanks, or chemical toilets, so waste is flushed right into the swamp. This is something of an abstract issue, as no agency has studied whether disposing of waste in this manner is a problem. Without such data biologists are not willing to say if the crude form of sanitation is harmful. "I just don't know in measurable terms what the concerns are," admits Steve Coughlin, a wildlife biologist with the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

A thornier issue is the impact the camps in Conservation Area3 have on tree islands, which provide wildlife with vital habitats. Again the arguments are anecdotal. No one has hard data. "One of the things that is always a concern is that the tree islands are a pretty limited resource," says Coughlin. "These camps built on the islands do have the potential to affect wildlife by taking up habitat. They have all damaged the islands to some extent."

Because the Everglades is largely inaccessible by road, camp owners use off-road vehicles (ORVs) to get to their places, and the presence of ORVs has sparked a big brouhaha. One environmental group has for years threatened to sue the federal government over the use of ORVs in the Big Cypress National Preserve, west of Conservation Area3. "[ORVs] are causing serious damage, especially when the water conditions are low," says Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project. The Sierra Club has also complained about the overuse of airboats in Big Cypress. The club's main beef is the tour operators who, members say, run the same trails over and over, scaring wildlife and destroying habitat. "Numerous endangered and threatened species in the region are impacted by the noise, speed, and backwash of airboats," writes Rod Tirrell, co-chairman of the Florida Sierra Club, in a letter to Big Cypress superintendent Wallace Hibbard. "Airboats are known to impact breeding and migration habits of manatees. We condemn splashy 'spinouts' and high speed 'thrill' activity in blind corners as inappropriate in a National Preserve."

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