March 11, 2020
There's this little joint in Key Largo where we like to go to catch our breath now and then, The Pelican Cottages. Nothing fancy, nice place to bring a boat.
The dock is on the “Gulf side,” on Buttonwood Sound. Fine waters for sunset cruises, kayaking, and the like. If the breeze nudges you a little west, watch it, Pal—you might cross the line. Now you're in Everglades National Park. Not until very recently had I thought much about that boundary. Drifting for seatrout and snappers, enjoying sunsets over the last 20 years or so: We were in a park?
This year, that distinction matters.
Everglades National Park now requires anyone crossing into park waters to pay an entry fee.
Now, I'm accustomed to paying a park entry fee when we drive through the gate at Homestead, down the long road to the coast. Been doing it for years. We use the ramp at Flamingo, buy odds and ends at the store. Makes sense: We're using facilities, pavement, the attention of park staff. The park also has a physical gateway in Everglades City.
But drifting along for happy hour behind one of the countless mom-and-pop cottages in the Keys? This is somehow calling on the resources of the park service?
Also: If you're going out with a fishing guide, be sure to ask what side of the Keys you'll be on. Guides who fish Gulf side pay a $550 annual fee for Commercial Use Authorization, which allows them to take people fishing in the park. Sort of. In early 2019, CUA permit-holders were instructed to begin telling passengers they'd need to also pay individual entry fees. Pay? Where? Drive from Islamorada to Flamingo? Visit some network of floating kiosks?
No… you pay online, of course. Annnnnd, it's so easy!
A salty cohort of guides and residents in the Keys are bending the ears of legislators and committees, trying to get the “water fee” waived. Among their contentions is that the fee implementation took place behind closed doors, circumventing due process. Check out: Stopparkwaterfee.org.
In the pre-smartphone age, of course, none of this would've made any sense at all. Park administration would've deemed the water fee inefficient, impractical, unenforceable.
Oh boo-hoo, you might be saying: If you can afford a fishing boat you can afford the $55 annual permit, or a 7-day pass ($30).
Maybe, for some, it's not the fee that stings, but rather the presumption—apparently in vogue among bureaucrats of all stripes—that “just because we can, we should.”
As I see it, anglers are mostly trying to be good sports in a fast-changing, increasingly digital world. Logging catches on apps. Paying for HMS permits. Signing up for Reef Fish Surveys. Scrolling through Fish Rules for micro-adjustments to seasons for obscure species. Heck, I took the online course to get my Everglades Boater Certificate—another new obligation for my backcountry forays.
But people are fast losing patience. They feel passworded out, licensed out. Fed up with fees.
Here's some advice, guv'mint people:
Just because it seems easy—or inexpensive—to you doesn't mean others will feel that way.
Put aside the technology for a minute.
The big question you should be asking (about anything): Is this really necessary?
Is it truly vital to tally the number of little boats on Buttonwood Sound? Is it critical that we pay rangers to shake down residents for digital entry tickets into open water?
Do we really need to penalize people drifting on the tides, trying to enjoy a few moments of quiet? Maybe… just maybe… some of them are trying to take a break from their damn phones. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2020