Preserving ‘Heart of the Everglades’ sparks fuss over access by Florida airboat operators

Posted on October 17, 2023

By Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix

Have you ever ridden on an airboat? I have, several times. I think it’s one of those quintessential Florida experiences, like acquiring your first machete, confronting your first flying cockroach, or rolling your eyes for the first time at the Legislature’s shenanigans.

Airboats are the fastest way to zoom across the vast and watery expanse of Florida’s most famous marsh, the Everglades. But they TEND TO BE PRETTY NOISY, so pretend I’m shouting at you for the rest of this column.

 “Gentle Ben” publicized the use of airboats in the Everglades, studio publicity still via IMDB

The shallow skiffs with the monster motors became popular for use in the River of Grass in the 1940s, but they became identified with it in the public mind in 1967. That’s when the TV show “Gentle Ben” showed a park ranger played by Dennis Weaver patrolling his beat aboard an airboat, accompanied by his son and his son’s pet bear.

Airboat tour companies are clustered around the Everglades the way taxis cluster around major airports. Both are angling to reel in those tourist dollars. But now, some of the tour operators are afraid they’ll be forced out of business by an unusual threat.

WBBH-TV had the story last week, headlined: “Airboat industry on alert after state land acquisition in Florida Everglades.”

That last part is the good news: For $29.5 million, the state of Florida signed on the line that is dotted, as they say in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to buy more than 11,000 undeveloped acres in Collier County west of State Road 29 and south of U.S. 41.

The people who wrangled this slice of old Florida into public hands dubbed it “the Green Heart of the Everglades.”

“More than a quarter of the land is mangrove habitat, critical for water quality and storm protection, while the uplands are home to black bears, Florida panthers, and 37 other federally listed species in the region,” the Naples Daily News reported.


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