Swamp Wars

Beset by feds and environmentalists, the good ol' boys of Big Cypress National Preserve circle the buggies

Over on the other coast, in the Collier County commission council chambers in Naples, the troops are girding for battle.

The soldiers are white men in their forties, fifties, and sixties, with ample bellies and deep tans. They wear baseball caps, boots, short-sleeve shirts, and blue jeans. Their leather belts bristle with hunting knives, cell phones, and big shiny buckles. They're named Gene, Buster, Sam, Dave, and so on.

There are 18 such men, and one woman, seated in rows of plastic chairs facing the dais where the county commissioners take care of business. But it's 10 p.m. and the politicians are gone. In fact, this meeting has nothing to do with county business; the room just happens to be large enough to accommodate the constituency of the Collier Sportsmen & Conservation Club.

Gene Darst: "We might not kill much, but goddamn we have a lot of fun out here"
Gene Darst: "We might not kill much, but goddamn we have a lot of fun out here"

Tonight all eyes are on club president Lyle McCandless, a 56-year-old real estate agent who addresses the crowd from beside a podium instead of behind it. He leans his left elbow on the worn wood, clasps his hands for emphasis, and puts on and takes off a pair of reading glasses dangling from his neck by a string. He has a full head of thick gray hair combed back in a smooth wave. His voice is clear and deep, his diction slow and deliberate. He rarely smiles.

McCandless rallies his troops with aphorisms like, "If we don't fight this thing now, we'll be out of it," "We just don't have any choice," and "I'm carrying on with this from hell to breakfast." At one point he takes his glasses off, locks eyes with a visitor and declares, "This is going to happen over my dead body."

This is about tradition. Values. Vanishing Florida culture. This is about swamp buggies in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

The National Park Service has a big book of new rules and regulations that will restrict off-road vehicles (ORVs) in the preserve, and these guys don't like these rules one bit. They think the federal government has cheated and lied to them, environmentalists have targeted them, and the media has made scapegoats of them for damaging Florida's last frontier -- all because they want continued access to the swamps, just like their fathers and grandfathers had before them. And they're ready to fight for it.

Behind McCandless is a five-foot-tall white board with "AT WAR FUND" spelled out in large capital letters across the top. The board is divided into three vertical columns: "DEAD SERIOUS," for those willing to part with $1000 to fund a lawsuit against the National Park Service; "VERY SERIOUS," for those who can afford $500; and "SERIOUS," for those who can scrape together only $100. Of the 14 names on the board, all but two are in the "DEAD SERIOUS" category.

The new regulations, published in a 600-page tome that includes the tantalizingly dubbed Final Recreational Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan and Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, are themselves the result of a 1995 lawsuit filed by a David of an environmental group that took on the Goliath of the federal government and won. The environmentalists believed Big Cypress was letting off-roaders run wild, ignoring its mandate to rein them in. A federal judge agreed, and ordered preserve managers to come up with a plan. National Park Service officials approved the plan in late September; it goes into effect October 23.

But the devil is in the details, and off-roaders believe the plan's message to them is simple: "Go to hell." Members of the Collier Sportsmen & Conservation Club will look you square in the eye and tell you the regulations are the first step toward kicking off-road vehicles out of the preserve altogether.

They refuse to let that happen. So they're preparing to fire off a lawsuit of their own, which is why McCandless is working the crowd tonight with the ardor of a preacher passing the collection plate. "You can find the money," he tells them. "If you needed $1000 to fix your buggy, you'd find it then."Gene Darst has the Rolls-Royce of swamp buggies, according to his buddies, who were camped in Big Cypress's Bear Island Unit on a recent Saturday in September.

Darst built it 30 years ago out of an International Harvester pickup truck frame. Thus, unlike a lot of buggies, it has a suspension, a big plus in the backcountry because suspensionless rides, to quote one swamp engineer, will "beat your ass shut." It's powered by a front-mounted 3.8 liter Ford V-6 engine recycled from a Thunderbird, connected first to an automatic transmission and then to a four-speed manual. Two transmissions are better than one because you have more gearing options -- like low, lower, and lowest. Darst does most of his motoring with the automatic in drive and the manual in second. He shifts the manual to first only when things get really sticky.

From the four-speed, power goes into a transfer case, then to differentials at the front and rear wheels for true four-wheel drive. The buggy runs on tractor tires; passengers in the back ride about six feet off the ground. There are no brakes. Top speed in the swamp is maybe four mph, giving you plenty of time to avoid obstacles. Not that there are all that many to avoid out here.

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