Navigating political waters

Published February 5, 2006

Gill net fishermen were pretty much voted out of business a decade ago.

Airboaters see themselves as part of that endangered culture, but vow not to suffer the same fate.

They're serious.

Airboaters, the real Bubbas of Florida outdoors, aren't about to be passive to any threat, real or perceived, to their favorite pastime.

When Pasco County commissioners recently suggested expanding restrictions on county lakes, airboaters showed up in force.

There are about 20,000 airboaters in Florida, a small fraction of the total number of boaters. But they attract a lot of attention. Their situation is familiar. New folks buy dream waterfront homes during the winter, and on the first warm day they're disturbed by the roar of an airboat. It's a clash between the old and the new, the urban and rural. There's no right and wrong. It's obviously a question of balance.

Homeowners want to open their windows to let in fresh air, breezes and sounds of nature. They don't want the sound of a 300-horsepower airboat, as exciting as that may be to the boat owner. Others suggest airboats harm plants and wildlife. But their real issue is noise.

With so many shallow lakes and coastal waterways inaccessible to traditional motorized vessels, airboaters take pride in their ability to venture where others can't.

Phil Walters, president of the Florida Airboat Association, is closely monitoring the debate.

Walters displays his Confederate flag sticker on his pickup; he hunts hog and gator and everything else that's legal. He uses the term redneck to describe folks like himself: rural, agrarian, live-off-the-land folks. But he's a different breed of airboater. He figures that for airboaters to hold on to their way of life, they need to get out of the water long enough to learn another sport: politics.

So when reporters call, Walters answers. When neighbors complain, he or other association members respond. When politicians begin to legislate and bureaucrats try to regulate, Walters and other airboaters take their hands off their rudders long enough to sit at the table.

They were involved when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission drafted new rules requiring mufflers for airboats. So officers are first educating airboaters instead of issuing tickets.

So far, the Pasco County fight seems pretty local. Longtime residents of the Cherry Lake Lane neighborhood in Land O'Lakes have been complaining about an airboating neighbor for months. They finally called county Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who like any good politician, responded to her constituents.

Like Citrus and Hernando, Pasco already has airboat restrictions on the books. No airboats on Crews Lake, Bell Lake and Lake Thomas. The ban does not include electrically powered engines. The county is considering expanding the ban to Cherry Lake, a relatively small neighborhood waterway near Ehren Cutoff.

When the issue comes up for public comment again, folks can expect to see Walters and Greg Abbott, president of the West Coast Airboat Club, based in Hudson.

Airboaters say they won't sit idly by and let Pasco discriminate against them. They'll fight. But if this is a neighborhood issue, one inconsiderate airboater annoying the neighbors, they won't protest.

That's part of the airboaters' new approach. Call it their survival strategy in the new, rapidly developing Florida. Accommodation isn't easy for this traditionally stubborn lot.

But they're heavily involved in helping to draft a nine-item code of ethics for airboaters, that the state will send out with boat registrations. The code of ethics also will be posted at boat landings and ramps so everyone gets the message. The first item on the code:

"Respect the right of everyone to enjoy Florida's waterways."

Respect. That should be the operative word as old Florida meets new.

-- Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com