Swamp Wars

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

Darst looks about as rugged as his creation. He's a burly 62-year-old with a ruddy complexion and no discernible neck. This morning he's wearing camouflage pants and shirt, and a broad-brimmed, open-weave hat. By trade he's a heavy-equipment operator and lives in Naples. On weekends during the fall hunting season, you'll find him in Big Cypress. "I've been coming out here since '74," he says in an accent thick with his West Virginia upbringing. "My wife says I live out here. I'd do that in a heartbeat."

He replaces the buggy's alternator, then loads supplies: beer ("The rule of thumb is a case a day for each day you're out here"), soda, water, rum, barbecue chicken, pickles, cheese, hot peppers, mayonnaise, napkins, and utensils. Sam Culp and Buster Miller are following along in their buggies. Between them they're bringing the vodka, tequila, bloody mary mix, apples, more soda, lunch meat, Gatorade, tomatoes, and lettuce.

"I got everything but the goddamn dancing girls today," says Darst, and with that he pops a cassette in the buggy's tape player and rolls out of camp, his tractor tires humming and Buddy Holly singing "Bye Bye Love."

Down-home ingenuity: Buster Miller on his Datsun-powered swamp buggy
Down-home ingenuity: Buster Miller on his Datsun-powered swamp buggy
Far from pristine, Big Cypress has been logged, grazed, and drilled for oil
Far from pristine, Big Cypress has been logged, grazed, and drilled for oil

Big Cypress slopes gently from northeast to southwest, draining into the Ten Thousand Islands area, then into Florida Bay. Bear Island marks the northwestern tip of the preserve, so it's slightly higher and drier than land to the south, though dry is a relative term because during the rainy season up to 90 percent of the preserve is underwater. The terrain in Bear Island is a mix of pine and cypress stands interspersed with large, open marshes and wet prairies.

The area is also cut through with hard-packed dirt roads that lead to oil rigs -- some derelict, some still pumping -- a reminder that Big Cypress is far from pristine. Smaller, unimproved, single-track trails loop through good hunting territory then reconnect with the main roads. In the summer months large sections of the island are under two or three feet of water. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to hike this terrain. Enter the swamp buggy. Everglades historians believe Naples resident Ed Frank created the very first one in 1918 when he combined parts from a Model T Ford and the bucket seat of a World War I airplane.

Darst's buggy is amazingly quiet. As he wheels down an oil-service road, the hum of his tires is louder than the engine. Thanks to the low gearing, the V-6 rarely has to do more than idle to keep the buggy moving. It rolls steadily forward without wheel-spinning, mud-churning antics. Passengers get a commanding, leisurely, often jarring view -- dense jungle here, wide-open prairies there. Add pith helmets and elephants, and this could pass for the African veldt.

Darst turns right onto a grassy path, pausing for a minute at a private camp. "That one's owned by some lawyers in Miami I think," he says, puttering by a chainlink fence with a "No Trespassing" sign on it. "There was another [camp] over there, but the government bought it. Burned it down."

A hundred yards farther and the buggy is up to its radiator in water. This is a reclaimed road, one of several on Bear Island where the crushed-limestone base has been scooped up and hauled away. The tea-color water that has inundated the roadbed makes it impossible to see how deep the channel is, giving the illusion that the buggy is running the length of a jungle stream.

Soon the trail dries out and broadens into a wide swale running between cypress strands and hardwood hammocks. The intense green of the grass contrasts with the fairy-tale blue of the sky, creating an exaggerated, almost surreal scene. Nearby a long cypress stand runs north and south, marking the boundary of an old farm field.

Spend 30 years puttering around a place at four miles per hour, and you get to know it. Darst not only can tell one hammock from another, he can tell you stories about many of them. Like the one to the west of the buggy. Turns out a friend of his had to spend the night in that hammock a few years back. "He got all drunk up and got stuck," he says. "He nearly burned the place down trying to stay warm."

The grass under the buggy's wheels is two feet high and resilient. It gets matted down, but there are no deep ruts. It's obvious where buggies have been but questionable whether they've done any lasting damage. At least here.

Bear Island is an experiment. Ten years ago the National Park Service dictated that ORVs had to stay on designated trails here. No more driving wherever they wanted, a practice called "dispersed use" that's still allowed in other parts of the preserve. And Bear Island looks good. There are only vague outlines of the old days when ORVs roamed freely. Most of the ruts have healed themselves.

Today there are about 60 miles of trails, including the service roads, reclaimed roads, and trails cut by buggies and four-wheel-drive trucks to access remote hunting spots. The new ORV-management plan will cut the mileage to 30, eliminating everything but the service roads. Darst's voice turns sour when he ponders the mandate. "They fly over with a chopper, see the grass knocked down, and they say, "You're fucking up everything.' This is one of my favorite spots. We're not hurting a damn thing."

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