For more than half a century, the desolate beauty of a huge swamp west of Miami has drawn hunters and outdoors lovers, who have erected camps in the wilderness.
In 1974, the swamp became a preserve under the authority of the National Park Service, and the legal status of those camps--some little better than flypaper shacks, others cinder-block structures with indoor plumbing, gas stoves and even lawns in front of them--has come into question.
About 100 people own camps on private land holdings that dot the Big Cypress National Preserve. But another 156 camps are on land that is now public property. Armed with a February ruling by a Miami federal court, the park service has targeted the squatter camps for demolition.
“It really is pure and simple a legal issue,” said Fred Fagergren, park service superintendent of the 716,000-acre preserve, which is just north of Everglades National Park.
But for the squatters, the future of the camps is a bitter emotional issue. They are still disputing the ruling and have written 79 senators in a last-ditch attempt to save their holdings.
With directions like “take a right at the two pine trees deformed by lightning,” the makeshift camps aren’t easy to find.
License plates tacked to a tree welcome visitors to camps with names like Firemen’s Island, Scorpion Head and Fat Charlie’s after a one-hour airboat ride or a trip of up to four hours on swamp buggies--souped-up, customized four-wheel drive trucks.
But for all its forlorn quality, the land itself inspires the squatters to considerable eloquence.
“I walk out there and I’m in another world. I cannot tell you spiritually or emotionally what that does. It’s heaven,” said Sonny Nomes, spokeswoman for a group that has sued to maintain the squatter camps.
Nomes recalls a venomous cottonmouth snake that bit a boat engine, an alligator that attacked a tire, and admits that there have been times when she’s said to herself: “Lady, you’ve got to be crazy to be out here.”
But, she said: “You see this gorgeous untouched cypress that is so big around it would take you 50 feet or better to get it around, and you see this lush pond next to it. It takes your breath away.”
Nomes, of Miami, said her first two dates with her husband-to-be were in the Everglades 15 years ago. They have never owned a camp but have visited friends deep in Big Cypress for holidays, hunting trips and relaxation.
The preserve is home to 11 endangered species, notably the Florida panther, and 395 archeological sites, primarily Indian burial mounds. Oil and gas exploration, hunting, off-road vehicles and cattle grazing are permitted in the preserve. The squatters hunt deer, turkeys and feral hogs.
The squatters claim that the park service is ignoring congressional intent by ousting them. No one bothered them when they built their camps on land titled to other owners before the preserve was created in 1974 with purchases from 47,000 landowners.
A handful of camps were torn down earlier this year, but Fagergren waited for hunting season to die down before launching widespread demolition this month.
“We’re being kicked out of the woods. That’s what’s happening,” said Jack Moller, who owns his own camp but fears all private interests in the preserve are being whittled away. “The park service likes everything to be totally regulated, totally controlled in their back yard, and they don’t want to see man’s influence anywhere.”
The park service plans to build at least 50 primitive camps--wooden platforms with roofs and screens--for back-country campers to use on a first come-first serve basis, as in most of the nation’s public camping areas.
But Sid Lewis, whose 20-year-old camp was demolished, says he will use his own modified four-wheel drive Toyota as a camp on wheels.
“There’s no way Fred Fagergren or anyone else is going to keep me out of the swamp. It doesn’t make any difference to me if I have to be in a tent,” said Lewis, of the Miami suburb of Hialeah. “I will continue year-round as I always have. I just won’t have a camp to go to.”