PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Gladesmen, Everglades National Park At Odds Over Airboats

This story contains a video on the modern Gladesman and an interactive timeline tracing Glades Culture from the 1800s to today.

Everglades National Park is phasing out the use of private airboats on land it began acquiring almost 30 years ago.

There are those who have been riding their vessels through this area long before it became part of the park.

They’re called Gladesmen. They’re the modern version of 19th-century settlers who made their living out there.

They say ending this tradition will erase part of their culture.  
The Expansion Area

On a cloudy day in February, Carter Burrus pointed his airboat west. The green engine read “Everglades Geezer.” He headed into the 109,000-acre East Everglades Expansion Area. It’s a tiny piece of the 1.5 million-acre National Park.

On both sides is tall grass – yellow and green. A tricolored heron emerged, flew side-by-side with the boat for a few moments, and then peeled away.

He got into airboating about 25 years ago.

“I find it very enjoyable - takes you places that ordinarily nobody could ever go to,” he said.

He cleared the tall grass and the Everglades opened up in front of him. The only things in sight were low brown grass with splotches of open water and clusters of green trees.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
A view of the East Everglades Expansion Area.

A Miami native, Burress calls himself a Gladesman.

“It means being able to participate in things that are special to the Everglades and that the human population can be part of without destroying,” he said.

Burrus might be part of the last generation of Gladesmen who can use airboats to enjoy this expansion area.

Airboats are not allowed in the majority of the park. Now, the park is phasing out private airboats in the Expansion Area. You’ll need a permit to keep doing it.

Who gets a permit goes back more than 25 years. Congress passed a law in the late 1980s to acquire the expansion. It was intended to protect wildlife, but it also addressed airboats.

“The act charged the park service to eliminate private airboat operations over time,” said park spokesperson Linda Friar.

The law says only those who owned and operated an airboat in that area as of January 1989 will get a permit. The permits are not transferrable.

Friar said the permit program has not been finalized, but the park hopes to begin issuing them in June.

Watch this video to see more about the modern Gladesman.


Gladesmen And The Park

The Gladesmen have a history with the park that goes back to its very creation.

Laura Ogden is an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. She wrote a book on Gladesmen. She said the term refers to people who made their living in the Everglades from the late 1800s until the early 1960s.

She said the creation of Everglades National Park in the mid-20th century brought along regulations that changed life for Gladesman and others.

“When Everglades National Park was established it was pretty dramatic for people who lived in the southern part of the Everglades. So, communities had been hunting in the Ten Thousand Islands and in the interior Everglades. When the park was established it became more and more difficult to do that,” she said.

Ogden said local development and job opportunities also moved people away from using the Everglades to make a living.

She said the contemporary use of the term Gladesmen means something different.

“Now, I think that term is used by communities who feel a connection to that heritage as well as feel like who they are is related to what they do in the Everglades so either recreationally or just who they are as a community,” she said.

This interactive timeline follows the evolution of Glades Culture from the 1800s to today.

Much of the information for this timeline came from a 2011 Ethnographic Study by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This is not the end of all airboating here. Park spokesperson Linda Friar said commercial airboats will still operate. She says the park is working out a concession contract with them.

“That dialogue is going on now. Whether it be purchased or those owners remain owners, it’s still not clear how that’s going to work out,” she said.

This means tourists can still see the Everglades from an airboat.

Some groups, like the National Parks Conservation Association, said the move will help the environment.

John Adornato with the advocacy group welcomed the changes. He said airboats affect water flow.

“Their pathways cut through vegetation and that causes changes in water flow patterns,” he said. “They also disturb and disrupt birding patterns; where birds nest. They can be spooked and leave a nest of fledglings.”

Besides, he said, there are plenty of other places to airboat nearby.

The Glades Culture

Back on Carter Burrus’ airboat, he agreed this land is worth preserving. He said the Gladesmen help take care of it. They pick up any trash, look after the land and keep an eye out for anyone in need.

“During times of emergencies for example airplane crashes that have gone out here… air boaters are the first on site – private air boaters,” he said.

A 2011 ethnographic study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers highlights the 1972 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. Airboaters were first on scene to help victims.

Burrus steered toward a cluster of thin, twisting trees growing out of the brown grass. A tall pole with an American flag stands in the middle.

Items hang from the scrawny limbs - a hat, a crumpled smaller flag and a sign planted at the bottom.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU
Carter Burrus looks from his airboat at a memorial site for Gladesmen inside the East Everglades Expansion Area.

Burrus stopped the craft. He said this is a memorial site for Gladesmen.

“They use it as a wedding site, people have been married out there,” he said. “People have had their ashes have been spread out there and it's just sort of a solemn area that people like to come and be tranquil and meditate and commune with nature.”

Burrus said airboaters represent Gladesmen culture. He said part of that culture will be lost if or when the permits start.

“Once the generation that is here right now passes on, no future generation will continue to enjoy this and see this and marvel at the beauty of the Everglades in this capacity,” he said.

He and the Airboat Association of Florida, which borders the land, are not giving up. Burrus said they hope to convince federal lawmakers to change the rules.

Burrus turned the airboat out of the expansion area creating a ripple behind in the water that slowly disappeared.

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.