Swamp Wars

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

Ms. Pearl started trekking and hunting in Big Cypress after realizing that she'd be a hunting widow if she stayed home. But she learned to love it so much that she would come out even when her husband, now deceased, wouldn't. Her children learned to hunt here. Her son Andy, now 40 years old, killed his first deer a quarter mile down the trail. "We've all had a lot of fun in the woods," she says. "I just like to be outside, to see nature."

"As long as I can put one foot in front of the other I'll be out here," she adds.

Fifty feet down the trail from Ms. Pearl's cook tent a tailgate party is in full swing. Darst, Sam, Buster, and Andy, Pearl's son, have circled their buggies and pooled their resources. Darst's buggy has a cavernous trunk under the flatbed rear end with a gate that folds down and makes an ideal table. The talk, over beers and barbecued chicken sandwiches, is about hunting. It's mostly talk, Darst confesses. "We might not kill much, but goddamn we have a lot of fun out here."

After lunch he takes to the Windmill Trail, a scenic secondary path scheduled to be closed under the new rules. It winds through parts that look like they've been mowed, wet prairies full of tall sawgrass, and pine forests filled with trees tall enough to block out the sun. The trio of buggies finally pulls up at a decaying one-room shotgun shack miles from any road that used to be home to a cowpuncher named Jimmy who lived out in the swamp for weeks at a time while tending his herd. Darst knew him. "He'd hang a lantern from the tallest tree he could find when he wanted someone to talk to," says Darst.

The Windmill Trail intersects with the North Loop Red Trail, which meanders through a vast, dry plain of cabbage palm and palmetto stands. It's late in the afternoon, and the sun feels like a warm skillet pressed to the back of the neck. Every so often Darst looks to the horizon and screws up his face in disgust. "Are we doing anything wrong out here? Are we destroying the Everglades? Bullshit."The whole mess would be much easier to pigeonhole if the ORV guys were genuinely unconcerned about the impact they've had on Big Cypress. But that's not the case.

Lyle McCandless, president of the Collier Sportsmen & Conservation Club, says his group has been willing to stay out of the sensitive areas and stick to designated trails. "We've conceded the fact that buggies should not run in the prairies," he says. In fact, buggy drivers say they could accept just about everything stipulated in the new plan, except the total trail miles, which they think woefully inadequate for a place as big as Big Cypress, and the ban on night running. So where's the rub?

"They have blatantly lied to us all along," says McCandless. And by "they" he's referring primarily to Big Cypress' new superintendent, John Donahue.

Among ORV types the mention of Donahue's name is usually accompanied by a shake of the head, downcast eyes, or an expression somewhere between exasperation and disgust. "He's as slick as a gravy sandwich," says one conservation club member.

"He'll pull your boots off if you don't watch it," offers another.

McCandless says Donahue sought the club's input, telling them their concerns would be included in the final plan and that they would be encouraged to help the park service lay out the system of designated trails. "I sat through three all-day workshops," he says. "It was excruciating, and it took away from my business."

Nonetheless it seemed for a moment that both sides were in agreement: ORVs would stay out of the prairies and stick to the high ground until the designated trails were in place. And they would have a say in where those trails went. The consensus lasted only until the final report came out.

"They lied to us," asserts McCandless. "They came up at the last minute and said, "By the way, we will cut your whole system to 400 miles and we are going to cut Bear Island trails in half.'"

The 47-year-old Donahue is a 20-year veteran of the park service. He's worked as a gardener, trail interpreter, resource manager, and environmental protection specialist. His last post was as the superintendent of both George Washington's Birthplace National Monument in Virginia, and the Thomas Stone National Historic Site in Maryland. He is well spoken and well versed in the lexicon of the park service, and says things like, "These lands are something we manage and are the stewards of for the future generations; we don't just inherit them from our ancestors, but we borrow them for our children," without a hint of irony in his voice.

He has the demeanor of a man who is prepared to take some flak without veering off course. He's been sent to South Florida to do a job, and if the locals are onboard, great. If not, well, he's been sent here to do a job. "All you need is to go out there and take a look with your own eyes to see what's happening," he says.

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