DUCK SOUP: Sufferin' Jets

We were silently paddling our canoe across the slow rolling, tea brown water of the Big Econalockatchee River, savoring the stillness of a warm Florida afternoon. We glided in and out of the shade of overhanging oaks and palms strung with vines and Spanish moss. The waterway is an old friend though we hadn't traveled it in several years -- but change was apparent.The cattle which once stomped and wallowed at many points along the bank are gone; partly, at least, because the state has acquired some surrounding land for a park, and partly because single-family homes are now sprouting in former pasture. The reduction in non-point source organic pollution should be good for the river.But there was something missing from the stretch of water we canoed that day: wildlife. And while the difference wasn't instantly apparent, the river banks appeared unnaturally clean -- as scrubbed and barren as if a flood had swept through, washing weeds and flotsam downstream. Compared to other rivers and spring runs we had canoed in recent days the Big Econ looked like a canal.Then came the noise from downriver -- a roar that rose and fell as the source drew near. We veered to the bank and steadied our craft as four jetskis zoomed past and continued upstream.Understanding blossomed.From across the country naturalists are reporting wildlife and habitat destruction caused by our latest and most intrusive techno-toy. Jetskis, or personal watercraft, are a serious and growing problem almost everywhere. Noisy, polluting and worst of all, able to navigate in extremely shallow water, these new machines destroy waterfowl nests, frighten nesting birds from their eggs (which chill and die), and, as we witnessed on the Econ, deliver the wash of power boat wakes to places beyond the reach of deeper drafted boats.Once-looned lakes have become loonless as the wave ãshreddersä have fanned out across the northern states and Canada. The quietude of wilderness canoe runs has been shattered. Birders, hikers and other non-consumptive nature lovers have had their pleasurable pursuits wrecked. Owners of cottages and cabins on once peaceful ponds have found their tranquility assaulted and fishermen have watched, infuriated, while whirling machines churn through favorite fishin' holes.In response to widespread public alarm, governments and their agencies are enacting protective regulations and outright bans. As Ted Williams reported in Audubon magazine (July-August Î98), a 1989 New Hampshire law allowing lake residents to prohibit the craft faltered when the watercraft industry launched a well-funded legal and public relations assault. Legislation enacted in Maine last April may fare better. Williams reports the new rules ban jetskis from 245 lakes in that state.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has excluded personal watercraft from Florida's Key West and Great White Heron wildlife refuges, and the Department of the Interior has installed similar bans in a few national parks including Everglades, Yellowstone, Dry Tortugas, Glacier, Canyonlands and Olympic, with hints that it is considering a system-wide proscription. Florida now enforces a 1,200 foot wide jetski-free zone along specific shores from Key West to Key Largo.Considering both the biotic damage inflicted by these toy boats, and the widespread repulsion triggered by their intrusive and deafening noise, a better approach might be a comprehensive nationwide ban on jetskis except where they are specifically permitted. Their use could then be approved by willing communities after environmental impact has been assessed and debated. Such treatment would be no different in legal terms than that accorded other consumptive uses of the commons such as toxic or radioactive waste disposal. Personal rights reasonably end where they infringe on the common good.My trashed afternoon paddle on the Econ was one trashed afternoon too many. To learn how you can help win the campaign against jetskis, call the Bluewater Network (415-788-3666), or visit their website at http://www.earthisland.org/ei/bw/pc/pwc.htm

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