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Washington is cracking down on Gator Park.
The Everglades tourist attraction received a letter Friday from the National Park Service ordering it to cease running airboat tours through the federal park waters just off the operation’s private land off the Tamiami Trail in western Miami-Dade.
Gator Park and the nearby Everglades Safari Park have been running tours as normal throughout the two-week shutdown of the park service and other federal agencies amid a budget fight in Washington. Operators of both businesses said a local park administrator ordered them to halt the rides by Monday.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Jon Weisberg, the owner of Gator Park for about 20 years. “I look at the Everglades as a navigable waterway.”
With the park service running on a skeleton crew, the agency began warning commercial fishing operations and guides in the hours after the shutdown began Oct. 1 that they could no longer use federal waters for their businesses. The ban applies to recreational users, too.
This week, the Park Service announced a significant loophole in South Florida, by saying recreational and commercial fishing would be allowed in Biscayne National Park. The change came after agency lawyers concluded that a provision in the legislation that created the park in 1980 that essentially mandates fishing could continue despite a lack of funds for park operations, said Brian Carlstrom, the park’s superintendent.
Tourism businesses throughout the country rely on federal parks, and their closure has prompted states to press Washington for relief. Park officials said they had no choice but to keep people out of park areas they could no longer patrol and supervise. Republican leaders have accused the Obama administration of making the shutdown more painful than it needed to be in order to build public pressure to end the impasse.
Utah on Friday agreed to pay $1.6 million to reopen eight of the state’s federal parks and monuments for up to 10 days, as other states negotiate ways around the current parks shutdown. The Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty are to reopen in coming days after state governors reached deals.
The Interior Department has warned the money may not be reimbursed, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott this week said he would not use state dollars to reopen parks in the Sunshine State.
Allen Etheridge, acting chief ranger for the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, said the local parks office explored whether the Tamiami businesses could continue operating, as they did during the 1995-96 shutdown. Then, the surrounding waters were privately owned. But thanks to a federal restoration program that involved expanding the park boundaries, the federal government now owns the water around the private attractions.
“We sent this to the solicitor’s office in D.C. to see if they had some sort of exemption,” Etheridge said. But the word came back: the airboats have to stay out of the federal waters, he said. “All of us have angst over this. We all want a resolution [to the shutdown] as quickly as possible.”
Dan Kimball, superintendent of the Everglades park, said the 48-hour delay in stopping the boat rides was an accommodation for the businesses receiving the notice on Friday. “We thought that would provide for an orderly closure,” he said. Kimball noted that there may be options for airboat operators off Tamiami to run tours in waters north of Tamiami Trail, which aren’t as accessible but also sit outside of the popular parkland.
In the letter to Gator Park, Kimball said the complications of the shutdown delayed the crackdown on the airboat tours. “With the limited resources available during the government furloughs, we have only now been able to focus on the specifics of your operation with the Park,” Kimball wrote. “We regret this action and recognize that the suspension of operations will have a significant impact on your employees, your business and visitors to the Everglades National Park.”
Both Etheridge and Kimball are working without pay during the shutdown.
Despite the shutdown, airboat business apparently has been good this week. On late Friday afternoon, Gator City’s website had a notice stating it was operating normally and that the “government shutdown does not affect our operations.”
Weisberg said he expects about 1,500 tourists this weekend, before he wraps up operations to comply with the park service’s instructions.
“We’re going to lay off 30 people,” he said. “All the tour operators that come here are going to have to lay off their bus drivers.”
The attraction offers nature shows and alligator wrestling, which can continue since they take place on Gator Park’s private land. But Weisberg said the vast majority of the visitors come for the airboat rides, which traverse federal waters.
Rick Farace, owner of Everglades Safari Park, said he’s ready to cancel expeditions from cruise ships that arrive throughout the week. Next weekend, he’s expecting about a dozen buses from PortMiami that will have to be scrapped without either an end to the shutdown or relief from Kimball’s order.
Farace said he’ll continue operating, in hopes the gator shows and other attractions on his land will keep tourists coming. “We’re going to improvise,” he said. ___