“GLADESMEN: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys” is a feature-length documentary about the federal government’s ban on Florida’s iconic airboats in much of the Everglades. The measure is part of the world’s largest effort to repair a damaged ecosystem, a vast river of grass that has been ravaged by more than a century of development, pollution, and other environmental degradation. The outcome will determine the future of the region’s water supply, and its ability to withstand rising sea levels. It may also lead to the demise of the Gladesmen.
THERE’S IMPENETRABLE SAWGRASS and dense cypress swamps. An endless horizon of slow-moving water reflects curtains of cauliflower clouds and a searing sun. Better known are the gators and crocs, herons and ibis, pythons and panthers. “There are no other Everglades in the world,” wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in her seminal 1947 book “River of Grass.” “They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.”
One of the few ways to experience them, to appreciate their vast solitudes and natural symphony of croaking and squawking, has been on airboats – specially designed, flat-bottom vessels that thunder across the shallow water propelled by aircraft engines. For nearly a century, airboats have allowed the men and women who call themselves Gladesmen to explore and commune with a wilderness that stretches 150 miles from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay, making them less remote. The boats are now icons of Florida, like the state’s beaches and palm trees, drawing visitors from around the world.
Now, after years of warnings, the federal government has begun banning airboats in vast portions of the Everglades. Officials say the noise of the boats harms the fragile ecosystem, which they’re spending billions of dollars to repair. Airboats rip trails through the sawgrass, roust wildlife from breeding grounds, and divert water into unnatural channels, they say.
For the Gladesmen, the ban constitutes a war on their way of life. Airboats, they say, are their only way to access the Everglades, where for more than a century they and their relatives have hunted alligators and gigged frogs, sought peace on isolated tree islands called hammocks, and taken refuge from the ever-increasing development that has carved up the Everglades. For them, the powerful machines screaming across the sawgrass are symbols of freedom, like motorcycles, but without the need for roads. They insist they don’t harm the environment, and they’ve vowed to fight the ban.
The conflict comes as the state and federal government wrangle over the future of the landmark restoration effort. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that pledged billions of dollars in federal and state aid to repair the Everglades, which have been crisscrossed by some 2,100 miles of canals, levees, and other structures that control the flow of water. More than half of the Everglades have been drained and radically transformed by development and agriculture. Much of the rest has been polluted or otherwise distressed. As a result, the Everglades have lost more than half of the water that historically flowed from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. The consequences have been disastrous: Florida has listed 113 species of plants as endangered and 47 as threatened in Everglades National Park – nearly one in four of its native plants. More than 70 species in the region are now considered threatened or endangered, including manatees, panthers, and crocodiles. (The Everglades are the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators live side by side.) Populations of wading birds, such as white ibis and wood storks, have plummeted by an estimated 90 percent. Still, large parts of the restoration plan have yet to take effect, as the state’s conservative leaders and its powerful agricultural industry balk at some of the crucial but more controversial projects.
The ban on airboats was part of a law Congress passed in 1989 that expanded Everglades National Park. But because of lobbying and the bureaucracy of the National Park Service, the law didn’t take effect until late 2016. The ban grandfathers in the older generation: the last sawgrass cowboys. Those who can prove that they had registered airboats before 1989 will be allowed to continue airboating. The law also allows three commercial operators to continue ferrying tourists on select trails, but they’re being forced to sell their property to the government and operate under strict new rules as federal concessions. Gladesmen say that if the law doesn’t change, it could spell the end of their culture, as they’ll no longer be able to pass on their traditions and knowledge of the Everglades to the next generation.
Environmental advocates have pressed the government for years to enforce the ban, noting that the channels airboats carve through the sawgrass are visible in satellite photos and resemble scars on the Everglades. Allowing the boats to continue operating, they say, detracts from the restoration, a project now estimated to cost at least $16 billion – double the expected costs in 2000. When completed, the project aims to restore billions of gallons of water a day to the Everglades, a flow now flushed to sea through the intricate system of man-made canals. Government officials say it’s the world’s most expensive environmental restoration project.
The work is now considered more vital than ever. With sea levels rising, South Florida is among the most vulnerable places on the planet. Much of the region is less than 6 feet above sea level, while the latest climate change models show that melting glaciers and warming oceans could raise sea levels nearly 7 feet or more by the end of the century. Scientists, advocates, and government officials overseeing the restoration say that increasing the flow of freshwater through the region will be vital as a bulwark against the encroaching seas. Without the freshwater pushing back against the rising tides, the Everglades could be inundated with saltwater. That wouldn’t just jeopardize the drinking water for the region’s eight million people. It would likely mean the end of the Everglades – and most of the civilization in South Florida.
“The Everglades is a test,” says Michael Grunwald, author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.” “If we pass, we get to keep the planet and prove whether man can live in harmony with nature.”