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Keys guides, boaters decry Florida Bay fee plans

Justin Unger (right), deputy superintendent at Everglades National Park, listens to an Upper Keys boater object to pending rules and price hikes affecting the park’s Florida Bay waters Tuesday. A crowd of about 100, including dozens of Florida Keys fishing guides, mostly voiced discontent at the Key Largo meeting.
Justin Unger (right), deputy superintendent at Everglades National Park, listens to an Upper Keys boater object to pending rules and price hikes affecting the park’s Florida Bay waters Tuesday. A crowd of about 100, including dozens of Florida Keys fishing guides, mostly voiced discontent at the Key Largo meeting. Keynoter

Florida Keys fishing guides and recreational boaters love Florida Bay but expressed no love for a slate of fee hikes proposed by Everglades National Park for most of the bay.

“In my 35 years here, it’s the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard,” Sterling Kennedy of Capt. Sterling’s Everglades Tour said after a two-hour Tuesday session with park managers at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo.

A plan to increase permit costs for commercial guides and require an annual $50 online boating class for all powerboat operators headed into the park’s Florida Bay waters drew nearly unanimous opposition from the crowd of about 100 people. A show of hands indicated the crowd roughly split between guides and recreational boaters.

Guides were not thrilled with a proposed increase in the park’s annual Commercial Use Authorization permit from the current $250 to $1,000 or more, depending on revenues. The permit is required for anyone who makes money inside a national park, although fees reportedly can vary by park.

A bigger problem, several guides said, is a requirement that all charter or boat-tour customers in park waters go online to pay a national-park entrance fee, estimated as $12 to $15 each. That is based on the seven-day fee for a walk-in visitor. That added step and cost could discourage anglers from booking bay trips from Islamorada and Key Largo, guides contended.

Everglades National Park has jurisdiction over about 1,100 square miles of Florida Bay, with the Intracoastal Waterway serving as the park’s southern boundary in the Upper Keys. In some areas, that puts it less than two miles from bayside shorelines.

‘Continue to fight’

“We’re not done with this,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to continue to fight this stupid plan.”

Key Largo fishing guide Lain Goodwin told park Superintendent Pedro Ramos and Deputy Superintendent Justin Unger, “The [Commercial Use Authorization permit] is not going to protect the resources. All you’re doing is hurting our economy.”

Islamorada guide Mike Ehlers said the Florida officials considered requiring a daily fishing license for charter customers but later agreed to let a charter license cover anglers on the boat. Asking clients to pull out their smart phones to buy a last-minute park entry ticket online is “insane,” Ehlers said.

“I don’t even know in the morning whether I’m going into the park,” Ehlers said. “At least be as smart as [Florida] and give us a flat rate.”

Unger said the park staff must abide by congressional mandates, which limit options. “What you’re asking, I don’t have the legal authority to do it,” he said.

Everglades National Park needs to increase revenues to address a backlog of maintenance and needed improvements at a cost that presently exceeds $88 million, staff said.

All Upper Keys fishing guides associations oppose the pending changes, Key Largo guide Randy Stallings said. “We deserve an extension on the comment period. There would be thousands of people opposed to this stupid plan... People don’t even know this is happening.”

Guide Matt Bellinger said as written, the proposal would require clients on a trip headed to the Gulf of Mexico to pay the park to ride through Florida Bay without ever stopping to fish. “How can you take away our right to navigate?” Bellinger asked. “You’re here to tell us how it is. We don’t understand and that’s where the angst is coming from.”

“These guys look out for your park,” said Kris Todd, wife of a charter captain. “If you could look out for them, that would be fabulous.”

Lawsuit threatened

“We’ll probably have to take you to court,” Key Largo guide Tony DelosSantos told park staff. “I don’t think we should have to pay for your mismanagement.”

Monica Woll of Florida Bay Outfitters said asking a tourist who wants a half-day kayak rental “to the very edge of Florida Bay” to buy a seven-day park entry “is really going to hurt our business... Let’s be reasonable. This is way too complicated.”

The park “doesn’t even have a place [for paddle craft] to launch” from the Keys into Florida Bay, said Frank Woll. “You did, but you took it away.”

A pending rule change would lower the cost of a park annual boating pass from $75 to $50 for recreational vessels. However, powerboat operators will be required to take a mandatory online education course every year, beginning in January. The course would be free until next July but then cost $50 annually.

“Why should we have to pay for a boating course every year to learn the same thing?” asked a boat owner “We don’t have to take a driver’s license test every year.”

Guides also would have to take the annual test, but the cost would be covered by their commercial permit fee. “Ridiculous,” scoffed guide Craig Brewer. “I’ve been navigating Florida Bay for more than 40 years.”

Ginette Hughes of the Upper Keys Sailing Club and Key Largo’s Marine Resources Development Foundation asked if visiting students and regatta sailors would be charged for using Florida Bay waters inside the national park. Very likely, managers said. That would be “an excessive burden,” Hughes responded.

“I’ve been down here 17 years and learned that the best stewards of our land and water are people from here,” Ramos said. “I learned a lot from some of the objections.”

Written comments can be submitted until 5 p.m. Sept. 15. Send emails to EVER_Superintendent@nps.gov.

Letters can be addressed to: Proposed Fee Changes, Superintendent, Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, FL 33034-6733.

After the comment period, a recommendation on fee changes will be submitted to the National Park Service’s Washington, D.C., office for final review.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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