Everglades Airboaters' Nasty Battle Over Big Bucks
Out in the East Everglades along the Tamiami Trail, on the thin strip of asphalt that runs between Miccosukee Resort & Gaming and Naples, plenty of dangers await the unsuspecting visitor. Alligators, pythons, cottonmouth snakes, and snapping turtles lurk in the marshes, ready to strike at a moment's notice.
But to Gary Matthews, nothing is more treacherous than airboat captains — those wizened, weathered men who pilot tons of metal backed by a ten-foot propeller over a few feet of water and miles of sawgrass. Threats, intimidation, theft, and underhanded tactics are as abundant in the Everglades as lilies and gators, he says.
"It's very cutthroat. It's a bloodbath," says the 61-year-old Matthews, who is tall and bald, with a face tanned from decades under the sun in the swamp. He runs private tours in Everglades National Park for Airboat USA, a company he purchased about a decade ago. Since then, he says, the other companies along the Tamiami Trail — namely Coopertown Airboats and Everglades Safari Park — have made his life a living hell.
"All we've tried to do is run a successful business," Matthews says. "They've tried about seven times to get me put out of business."
It's a soap opera set in a sleepy part of the swamp that includes profanity, cops, and tens of thousands of dollars in profit. Matthews lobs accusations at his competitors; they deny them. According to Jesse Kennon, owner of Coopertown Airboats, Matthews has become persona non grata among airboaters. "The only one stirring up trouble here is Gary Matthews," he says. "Everybody's tried to help him, but he wants to come in and take over. Not many people here like him."
The South Florida airboat industry dates to the years immediately following World War II. Coopertown, the oldest concern in the East Everglades, opened for business in 1945; Safari Park started up in 1968. Since 1989, the National Park Service (NPS) has allowed only four companies — Coopertown, Safari Park, Gator Park, and Airboat USA — to operate in Everglades National Park. Those four hold a virtual monopoly on roughly 100,000 acres of land, ten times the size of Manhattan.
Though airboat companies exist as far north as Orlando, the most popular operators are along the Trail. Coopertown entertains about 90,000 visitors per year — 75 percent of them from outside the country. Overall, Kennon estimates, about a half-million people a year ride the airboats in South Florida. At $20 a head, those numbers have added up to big money.
But the airboating territory might shrink. Since the addition of the East Everglades to Everglades National Park in 1989, the NPS has considered limiting access to parts of the fragile ecosystem. Acting public information officer Mary Plumb says the NPS is evaluating "how many, if any, of the four operations are necessary and appropriate for visitors."
And competition is growing in Miami. Dozens of smaller companies have popped up on the Trail all the way through to Naples and into Everglades City. Kennon says that, since 1980, the area has gone from roughly 25 companies to 2,500.
Matthews is one of those small operators. A retired airline pilot, he began to airboat professionally in 2001. Back then, he helped government agencies and research organizations — the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Environmental Protection, scientists from Louisiana State University — travel the Everglades to conduct studies. After doing an educational show about frogs for New York City's PBS affiliate, he began to think of expanding his business.
Soon he started working with TV shows such as The Amazing Race, CSI: Miami, and Burn Notice and a number of projects for Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. He even appeared in an episode of Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami, the Magic City-based spinoff of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in which Matthews discovered the sisters stranded in the Everglades and found them a cabin in the swamp.
Matthews is full of impressive claims — for instance, he used to own a repair shop for Porsches and Ferraris in Coral Gables in the '70s and '80s, and Animal Planet approached him to replace Steve Irwin after the Australian explorer's death in 2006. "I didn't nail the audition, so to speak," he says, chuckling. But there's little mirth in his voice when he talks about his run-ins with other airboat captains.
"I have no respect for Coopertown or Safari Park," he says. "I've done nothing to hurt them."
In November 2007, he says, Kennon verbally and physically threatened him during a tour. As Matthews recalls, he was leading a private tour in the park when Kennon approached on an airboat.
"Jesse flies in and he's screaming, 'Get your motherfucking ass out of my Everglades,' " Matthews says. "Then he grabs a pipe, and he's going, 'I'm going to kick your fucking ass!' "
It's difficult to imagine the 70-year-old Kennon, who is soft-spoken and quiet, threatening to beat a man. With a wispy ponytail, glasses, and a green polo shirt tucked into jeans, he looks more like a retired high school science teacher than a swamp denizen. Though he acknowledges that he and Matthews had an argument, he vehemently denies any physical threat was made.
"He was disrupting my tours, and I said I didn't appreciate it, and how long was he going to stay there, and he got all smart-mouth," Kennon says, irritated by the memory. "The pipe? That's part of Gary's imagination. He almost got me put in jail for something I didn't do."
Miami-Dade police were called in, but no charges were filed against Kennon, who says witnesses disputed Matthews' account. One thing is clear: The incident permanently soured the relationship between the two men. "I have no reason to talk to him," Kennon says of Matthews.
Javier Morejon, who works for Airboat in Everglades, a 1-year-old private tour company that operates along the Trail, has another sort of complaint about Matthews from when Morejon worked for him. He, along with two other former Airboat USA employees, sued Matthews in April 2012. They claim Matthews stiffed them out of wages.
Matthews contends the lawsuit is a shakedown attempt designed to divert attention from Morejon's crime against him: the alleged theft of nearly $70,000 from Matthews between 2010 and 2011. "He tried to steal from every part of the company he could," Matthews says.
(New Times found no legal charges or lawsuits confirming this allegation.)
Like Kennon, Morejon says Matthews is fabricating events. "If that were true, I'd be incarcerated," says Morejon, who was arrested and convicted of armed robbery in 2008. "I never did anything illegal." Pressed about his relationship with Matthews, Morejon says, "I've got nothing to talk about that," and hangs up.
At Everglades Safari Park, about four miles down the road from Coopertown, owner Rick Farace has bigger matters on his mind than Matthews. Wearing a khaki uniform that makes him look like an overgrown Boy Scout, Farace is preoccupied with a tour involving the Kardashians — which ones, he doesn't know — that has been delayed nearly a week. He mills about the park's ticket booth while watching a TV production crew inspect the airboats. With his hair neatly combed back and graying at the temples, Farace brushes off concerns about Matthews and other competitors.
"We don't worry about other people," he says. "Our advantage is our reputation."
Most airboat owners play down talk of fights and bad blood, but Russ Larkin of the Airboat Association of Florida believes Matthews has contributed heavily to the tension. "When you do a business deal with Gary, you need to grab a jar of Vaseline, rub some on, and back up, because you're about to get screwed," he says. "Gary has no respect for nobody."
The NPS downplays the friction. "The National Park Service does respond to disputes between airboat companies and operators," Plumb writes. "They do not occur frequently, and our law enforcement rangers indicate most are unfounded or cannot be substantiated."
Indeed, Matthews claims he has tried to bury the hatchet with the others. "The more invisible we are to the Park Service, the less chance we'll be modified. A house divided will not stand."
But Kennon says Matthews has a habit of saying one thing and doing another. "He's like a mosquito that keeps buzzing around. He figures he can knock me out of here. He'll try anything. The rest doesn't interest me. I'm not interested in soap operas."
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