- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

COOPERTOWN, Fla. — Jesse Kennon’s back yard is the wide expanse of the Florida Everglades. His mode of transportation is an airboat that brings tourists to see the hundreds of alligators and other wildlife that inhabit this subtropical wilderness.

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

Mr. Kennon would like to leave the business to his son, but it faces an uncertain long-term future.

The National Park Service is buying the land where Mr. Kennon lives and does business, along with the property where two other independent airboat companies operate. It’s part of the Everglades 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, and whether Mr. Kennon will be able to continue to operate his business won’t be known before 2006, says Rick Cook, a spokesman for Everglades National Park.

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

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

Everglades park officials believe airboats leave a trail. “The trails open channels, which are conduits, almost like canals, for a faster flow of water,” Mr. Cook says, 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 says.

Mr. Kennon, however, maintains that the airboats are environmentally sound.

“The only way it leaves any track is if you run the same trail,” he says. “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.”

Mr. Kennon contends that bringing people out into the Everglades increases public education. “Everything we do around here we do to protect the environment,” he says. “We take people out and explain the Everglades and what it’s about.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Cooper 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,” Mr. Kennon says.

After 36 years, Mr. Cooper retired in 1981 and Mr. 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, including a hat autographed by actor Dennis Hopper, “For the Coopertown Gang.” Visitors range from German tourists and Miami day-trippers to Prince Charles and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat. Several movies, TV shows such as CBS’ “CSI Miami” and models have done shoots in the Everglades, with Mr. Kennon often serving as chauffeur.

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

Alligators abound; many swim 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,” Mr. Kennon says. “You’re in a totally different world. No horns, no phones. It’s total relaxation.”

According to the airboat tours Web site, 17,837 people have taken Coopertown Airboat Tours since Sept. 3, 1999. Tours depart every 20 minutes for 40-minute rides from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily from the landing 11 miles west of the Florida Turnpike on Route 41 (Tamiami Trail).

The price is $14 for adults, $8 for ages 7 to 11, free for children 6 and younger. For more information: www.coopertownairboats.com; phone 305/226-6048; and Everglades National Park at 305/242-7700 or www.nps.gov/ever.

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