Paradise Crushed

A lush idyllic chunk of the Everglades was transformed by bulldozers and a huge tree-eating juggernaut

You'd think Bellman, Denninger, and the others would have rejoiced when the state acquired Fakahatchee. They didn't. Five years after the takeover, the Bellman family had to abandon its original camp and build anew eight miles into the interior of the park, where the property is actually located. Then in 1986, the state ended hunting in the Fakahatchee and prohibited the use of off-road vehicles, actions taken to protect the feral hog and whitetail deer that served as prey for the desperately dwindling population of Florida panthers.

To Ralph Bellman, however, the state's imposition of new rules and regulations took him back to that day in 1969 when he confronted a guard and a gate across his path. Someone new was swooping in from the outside, making pronouncements about what was best for the place, telling him where he could go and what he could do. Even today, it grates on Bellman and Denninger, who spent 34 years together hunting and exploring Florida's southwest wilderness.

Preservation of the Fakahatchee Strand, the nearby Big Cypress National Preserve, and the new Picayune Strand State Forest (just east of Naples) has come at a high price. The Bellmans can no longer hunt the Fakahatchee. And even though they can use an off-road vehicle to reach their relocated camp eight miles off Janes Scenic Drive, the general public is prohibited. Bellman thinks other visitors should be able to use vehicles that will allow them to travel deep into the strand, especially if use is restricted to old logging trails. In the Big Cypress, swamp-buggy enthusiasts and airboat owners who've been using the area for many years are now feuding with federal officials over access.

From top: The home fries in the early '70s on the boom of the tree crusher they vowed to destroy; Ralph Bellman, graying at the edges but radical still; Bellman and Rudy Lutz's hunting camp in the Fakahatchee; Judy Bellman has made the place look homey
From top: The home fries in the early '70s on the boom of the tree crusher they vowed to destroy; Ralph Bellman, graying at the edges but radical still; Bellman and Rudy Lutz's hunting camp in the Fakahatchee; Judy Bellman has made the place look homey

Besides, Bellman and Denninger are not convinced that parks people know how to protect the habitat any better than the rapacious developers. Both also say that hunters have been made the scapegoat for an environment in trouble. Federal and state park managers, they believe, missed an opportunity by not inviting hunters and area natives to teach the bureaucrats and scientists about the ecosystem they've known so well.

"No matter what we hunters did out there, it was development that was the disaster," Bellman insists. Still, he thinks the area is better off as public land. "If the park service hadn't taken it over," he says, "we'd have development from Naples to Key West."

Denninger, at age 55, has become a devoted activist on behalf of South Florida's Everglades system. He attends meetings about off-road vehicle trails in the Big Cypress. He fights to protect the rights of hunters. He susses out the long-term agenda of the international environmental-protection movement, studies its lobbying methods. You'd think he was paranoid except for the fact that he seems to be making some sense of it.

Bellman, though, thinks his old friend Denninger ought to give the activism a break and focus on his livelihood as a metal fabricator. The man drives around in a 1984 Ford pickup with a fading paint job and 300,000 miles on it. He has to pour a quart and a half of oil in the thing every 50 miles.

Denninger just as quickly rags on Bellman, calling him selfish for not devoting more time to the struggle. He wishes his friend would make the same commitment to fight for the rights of traditional users as they both did in battling the Golden Gate development.

On an agonizingly sultry day in mid-June, the sun is screaming hot, and it's not even 10 a.m. The rain has come out of the fast-blackening sky as if the clouds gathered into a single giant reservoir of water and then flipped upside down, pouring it to Earth all at once. Crazy pummeling. And it's just the start of the rainy season.

Mosquitoes move in thick clouds, descending to swarm over anything warm-blooded. The microbuzzards envelop you in the daytime, but it's even worse at dusk. If you could stop breathing, you would. Simply by inhaling, you could snort the things directly into your system.

Bellman trudges down the old logging trail to his original camp in full camouflage gear, a green camo shirt and a weird combo of black-and-tan pants. He's covered in mosquito netting, a kind of bucket hat with mosquito net sewn around the edges that can be tucked into a T-shirt. He looks like a creature emerged from the black lagoon. Denninger is bare-faced, wearing a baseball cap and a long-sleeved, plain-green canvas shirt tucked into blue jeans, which are tucked into knee-high waders. No mosquito netting. He profiles as macho man.

They wade through a slough and are tickled to discover that the old gate they put up along the logging trail is still there, locked, and it's been 25 years since they used this place. Bellman eagerly points out how the vegetation has taken over. He's delighted to see a healthy young live oak in the middle of a path. It's as tall as Bellman himself.

The tree and the thick encroaching vegetation they slide past and climb over demonstrate how tough the habitat is, how it recovers and reclaims human despoliation. "It's the toughest environment on Earth," Denninger says. "Look at all the abuse it's taken."

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