2003-11-06 / Travel

Everglades: Airboat Rides Face Uncertain Futures

Associated Press Writer
By Rachel La Corte
Everglades: Airboat Rides Face Uncertain Futures By Rachel La Corte Associated Press Writer

COOPERTOWN, Fla. (AP) – Jesse Kennon’s back yard is the wide ex-panse of the Florida Everglades. And his mode of transportation is an airboat that brings tourists to see the hundreds of alligators and other wild-life that inhabit this subtropical wilderness.

The ride business, located 25 miles southwest of downtown Miami, was founded by Kennon’s cousin in 1945. But it remains a popular attraction, departing every 20 minutes, every day of the week, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Kennon would like to leave the bu-siness to his son, but it faces an uncertain long-term future. The National Park Service is buying the land where Kennon lives and does business, along with the property where two other independent airboat companies operate along the trail. It’s part of the Ever-glades Protection and Expansion Act, which will add about 109,000 acres to Everglades National Park.

The general management plan for the park is still being worked out, but whether Kennon will be able to continue to operate his business won’t be known before 2006, said Rick Cook, a spokesman for Everglades National Park.

"We don’t want to move in and shut them down,’’ Cook said. The plan "is a blank sheet right now and we want to keep all options open.’’

Kennon, 61, said he can’t stop the government from eventually acquiring his land, but he can fight to make sure he has concession rights, meaning he can still run the business even if he no longer owns the property.

Everglades park officials believe that airboats leave a trail. "The trails open channels, which are conduits, almost like canals, for a faster flow of water,’’ Cook said, adding that the channels can carry pollutants into ecologically sensitive areas. Airboats also "can disrupt wildlife because of the noise, can disturb nesting and wading birds and alligator nesting,’’ he said.

But Kennon maintains that the airboats are environmentally sound.

"The only way it leaves any track is if you run the same trail,’’ he said. "When the water’s up, you run through the grass, you don’t even leave a trail. They’ve never been able to prove the airboat is detrimental to the environment.’’

And, Kennon said, bringing people out into the Everglades increases public education.

"Everything we do around here we do to protect the environment,’’ he said. "We take people out and explain the Everglades and what it’s about.’’

Kennon’s cousin, John Cooper, moved here with his family from Missouri nearly 60 years ago, lured by good "frogging’’ – hunting for frogs _ using an airboat. The airboat, basically an automobile engine and giant propeller attached to a flat-bottomed skiff, drew so much attention from passers-by that he started taking people for rides. Soon he had a booming business.

"They figured they’d take people out on the airboat during the day and they’d frog at night,’’ Kennon said.

After 36 years running the business, Cooper retired in 1981 and Kennon took over the business, which sits on two acres and includes the restaurant and bait shop.

The restaurant’s ceiling is covered with business cards and foreign money left by visitors, and the walls are filled with mounted heads _ deer, bobcat and wild boar – and signed mementos, in-cluding a hat autographed by actor Den-nis Hopper, "For the Coopertown Gang.’’ Visitors range from German tourists and Miami day-trippers to Prince Charles and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Several movies, TV shows such as CBS’ "CSI Miami’’ and models have done shoots in the Everglades, with Kennon often serving as chauffeur.

The airboats range from 12 feet to 24 feet long. When Kennon, his reddish hair pulled back in a ponytail, pushes off the dock, the engine sputters, then roars as the descent into the abundant sawgrass, needlegrass and pond apple trees begins.

Alligators abound, with many swim-ming alongside the boat while others warily eye visitors from a distance. As the boat travels at speeds up to 40 mph, a great blue heron takes off. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but grass and water. Only a plane passing overhead indicates civilization is nearby.

"It’s the most tranquil place in the world,’’ Kennon said. "You’re in a to-tally different world. No horns, no phones. It’s total relaxation.’’

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