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.

Preston
Gene Darst: "We might not kill much, but goddamn we have a lot of fun out here"
Preston
Gene Darst: "We might not kill much, but goddamn we have a lot of fun out here"
Down-home ingenuity: Buster Miller on his Datsun-powered swamp buggy
Preston
Down-home ingenuity: Buster Miller on his Datsun-powered swamp buggy
Far from pristine, Big Cypress has been logged, grazed, and drilled for oil
Preston
Far from pristine, Big Cypress has been logged, grazed, and drilled for oil
No dispute, buggies have left their mark on Big Cypress
Preston
No dispute, buggies have left their mark on Big Cypress
Preserve spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert says you can't see the big picture from buggy level
Preston
Preserve spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert says you can't see the big picture from buggy level
Pearl Waggoner, better known as Ms. Pearl, has been hunting in Big Cypress just shy of forever
Preston
Pearl Waggoner, better known as Ms. Pearl, has been hunting in Big Cypress just shy of forever
New kid on the block Superintendent John Donahue has been on the job less than a year.
Preston
New kid on the block Superintendent John Donahue has been on the job less than a year.
Happy trails?
Preston
Happy trails?

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.

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."

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."

A young deer darts across the swale 20 yards ahead of the buggy. Further down the trail a curlew takes flight from the brush. Darst says the old-timers call these birds "Chokoloskee chickens," a reference to the island town south of Everglades City. "Great with biscuits and gravy, though it's illegal to hit them now. But everything is either illegal, immoral, or fattening." As the buggy passes under an overhang of thick palmettos Darst grabs a rusty machete he keeps within reach on top of the buggy's hood near the gun rack and neatly lops off the lowest frond. Helps keep the trail clear. Then he drives awhile in silence.

"It ain't right what's being done here," he finally says.No one -- not environmentalists, buggy drivers, or park personnel -- disputes the fact that ORVs have left their mark on Big Cypress. The evidence is hard to miss. From the seat of a buggy, there's always a trail stretching out in front and behind you. Peripherally there are signs of tracks and ruts, but only because the nearby vegetation is matted down.

From the front seat of a Bell Ranger III helicopter at an altitude of 1000 feet, the picture is very different. The buggy tracks become crazy, swirling lines going everywhere and nowhere at once. Sections of the preserve look like a two-year-old's scribbling on a clean sheet of paper.

Bill Evans is the National Park Service employee in the chopper's pilot seat. To make a point, the 52-year-old flier drops the Ranger to six feet off the ground in a marl prairie, then creeps forward along a single buggy trail. No other trails are visible. When he pulls up on the stick, the chopper rises, and it's quickly apparent this lonesome prairie three miles from any road is crisscrossed with ORV tracks.

"At buggy level you don't see the big picture," says Sandra Snell-Dobert through the helicopter's radio headset. Snell-Dobert is the preserve's public information officer. She's riding in the back, putting the National Park Service spin on the impact of ORVs. "All you can see is the rut ahead of you."

It's true, and a useful metaphor besides: What Big Cypress should be, whether or not off-road vehicles are damaging it, depends to a large extent on your vantage point.

When created by an act of Congress in 1974, Big Cypress was the nation's first "preserve." By that time the National Park system was already 100 years old, born with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. But there had never been anything like Big Cypress, which by the early '70s was already considered Florida's last frontier.

Back then it was much more of a free-for-all -- a patchwork of state and private holdings, logging and cattle interests -- rich with the possibilities of oil-and-gas exploration. Hunters squatted on public land, sometimes building elaborate camps to which they had no legal claim. Loggers had already cut down most of the old-growth cypress trees for use as pickle barrels, coffins, and siding. Perhaps most ominously, developers had their eyes on big chunks of the area. The Everglades Jet Port, built in 1968, along with development on Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley all pointed to the notion that Big Cypress Swamp was on its way to becoming Big Cypress Estates, a gated community.

Realizing this vast natural treasure might be lost to all, an unlikely alliance of sportsmen, environmentalists, private landowners, and the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian tribes got together and forged what has since been called the Great Compromise. Hunters could still hunt and run ORVs, private landowners could stay, oil-and-gas companies could drill, and the tribes could keep using the land for their cultural and religious purposes.

Before Big Cypress such a compromise was unknown in the National Park system; protection of the resource took priority over other interests. But there were just too many interests already in Big Cypress. So the federal government concocted the notion of the national preserve, a designation that recognizes cultural, economic, recreational, and natural value of an area. Big Cypress was the first, created by Congress just a few hours before Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. Today there are 16 designated national preserves.

One of the park service's mandates was to create a plan to regulate ORVs and minimize their impact on Big Cypress, a task preserve managers never got around to until 1991, when they issued their first general management plan. That document had ORV guidelines but nothing specific.

So hunters simply continued what they'd been doing since the first swamp buggies were invented: motoring about the swamp pretty much as they pleased. Not that the park service was completely hands-off. They banned tracked vehicles in the '80s, closed down particularly sensitive lands to ORV use, established the designated trail system on Bear Island, and required ORVs to be registered and meet criteria for tire size, mufflers, lights, and other items to get an operating permit.

But for one group of environmentalists, the park service hadn't gone nearly far enough.

In 1994 the Florida Biodiversity Project, based in Fort Lauderdale, sued the National Park Service over its lack of an ORV management plan for Big Cypress. "This is one of the most fragile, sensitive areas in the country," says the group's president, Brian Scherf. "Not only do you have the soft wetland soils, but you also have numerous endangered species.

"This is the worst case of overuse in the National Park system," he adds.

The Florida Biodiversity Project comprises only six people, not all of whom live in Florida. In the past they've championed "uncharismatic species, things other groups don't want to get involved with," Scherf says, mentioning the Big Cypress fox squirrel and Johnson sea grass. In the early '90s they were poking around the state's idea to put in Big Cypress access points along Alligator Alley -- "prime panther territory," Scherf notes -- when someone suggested they take a look at the preserve's ORV trails. They didn't like what they saw, and couldn't believe there was no comprehensive ORV management plan in place after all these years. Backed by federal money, they battled the National Park Service in court until both sides reached a settlement agreement in 1995. The park service would have to come up with a plan to control ORVs or find itself back in court.

In 1999 they did formulate a plan, but it was a resounding flop. "It was very general, there was no firm foundation in science, and nobody liked it, whatever your point of view," says Franklin Adams, a charter boat captain in Everglades City and a member of the Tallahassee-based Florida Wildlife Federation, a pro-ORV group.

Park service officials revised their plans and put out the final draft ORV-management document in August 2000. Most everybody, excepting park service officials, thinks it's a flop.

The final management plan and environmental-impact statement is 600 pages long. It requires ORVs to venture into Big Cypress from established points only, stay on designated trails, stay out of sensitive areas like wet prairies and Cape Sable seaside sparrow habitat, not travel between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and observe seasonal closures of the entire preserve.

But the most contentious issue is the trails.

According to an aerial study by the University of Georgia, more than 20,000 miles of trails wind through Big Cypress. (ORV users scoff at that figure, noting that the survey counts every set of buggy tracks as a "trail" so that, even if a driver deviated from an established path by a few feet, he's cutting a separate, distinct trail that adds to the total mileage of the preserve.) Under the new plan the official mileage count will be reduced to about 400.

Buggy jockeys say that's not enough; environmentalists say it's still too much. Scherf believes the only trails that should be allowed in Big Cypress are those that allow access to private in-holdings. "[The park service] is still trying to kowtow to the off-road vehicle users," Scherf states. "We want to see a more protective plan. The bottom line is, the resources have to come first before recreational access."

Ron Hofstetter, a wetland ecologist at the University of Miami who has been taking students to Big Cypress for 30 years, sent a letter to the park service urging them to curtail buggy use until more research is done. "We are talking about at least decades [for ruts to fill in], rather than days, weeks, months, or years," says Hofstetter. "We're possibly even talking numbers of half centuries."

The problem, says Big Cypress botanist Jim Burch, is that in delicate regions like wet prairies, buggies can only make one or two passes before cutting through the soil and turning the tracks into deep ruts. Once that happens, buggy drivers detour around the ruts, which tends to fan out the impact. "Those are areas that tend to get used a lot," says Burch. "There are no trees to block your path so people tend to go outside the trail. Certainly it breaks things up and bends them over, particularly in the heavily used areas. Nothing grows there after a while."The last time Ms. Pearl came out to Bear Island, she found an alligator in her cook tent. "I had been out there just at daylight washing dishes right there," she says, pointing to the pond 15 feet away from her campsite. "I wasn't even thinking about that gator, and in a little while I walked back in here and I looked, and he was right in here at that table, that big old huge gator."

Her son's girlfriend was asleep in a nearby tent, so Ms. Pearl yelled, as much out of fright as warning, probably. "I said, "Oh my God, that gator is right asleep at the cook tent!'"

Ms. Pearl is 73 years old, and her full name is Pearl Waggoner, but everyone calls her Ms. Pearl. She lives in Naples, and she's been coming to the woods just shy of forever. But she'd never had an alligator in her cook tent before. She'd heard that loud noises scare away bears and figured the same tactic might work for alligators, so she made a ruckus and the gator took off.

"It whirled around and boy, he liked to knock all the water out of that pond going in there," she says.

She's here in bow season despite the fact that she doesn't bow hunt. Ms. Pearl prefers to go after wild turkeys with a shotgun later in the fall. She's here despite the fact that it's 90 degrees­plus in the shade and there's precious little breeze under the blue tarp that shields her cook tent.

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.

Donahue counters he didn't lie to anybody. In fact he notes that he has made an extra effort to attend meetings of ORV groups, solicit their input, and invite them to lay out the trails. And he expresses dismay about the state of relations between him and the ORV groups. "[In mid-September] McCandless had expressed to me that he was pleased that we would allow dispersed use while we created designated trails," says Donahue. "I thought we were making good progress."

At the end of the day someone has to make a decision, though, and that's why Donahue draws a paycheck. He decided 400 miles was sufficient. "We tried to lay out a framework that would get as many people to as many places as possible while still protecting the fragile resources," he says. "Four hundred miles in a backcountry trail area is still going to be the largest vehicular system in any national park unit anywhere in the country."

That, of course, does little to soothe the nerves of people who feel almost like an endangered species themselves.

At the end of the meeting of the Collier Sportsmen & Conservation Club, the one held in the county commissioners' meeting room, McCandless flashes a check for $5475. It's a down payment to a "high-profile" Washington, D.C., lawyer who has agreed to take the case for ORV-users all over South Florida. They plan to file shortly after the new rules go into effect in October. "I once told [Donahue] this is not a laughing matter," says McCandless. "You have greatly underestimated your opposition."

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