WAXAHACHIE (CBSDFW.COM) – Airboat operators along a stretch of the Brazos River believe it will soon be illegal to traverse portions of it in their shallow-water machines because of one wealthy woman’s influence.
The State Legislature is trying to ban airboats from the John Graves Scenic Riverway, a stretch of the Brazos River that spans from Possum Kingdom Lake to Lake Granbury.
The boaters believe one wealthy woman is behind it all.
Larry Dowthitt said he’s worked hard all of his life.
“To get to where I’m at so I can enjoy this river and fish,” the retired Parker County resident said.
He does that from the captain’s chair of his airboat, a type of watercraft he has operated since 1985.
“An airboat is designed specifically for shallow water purposes,” he said, ”It’s perfect for the Brazos. In order to get to where the fishing is good from right here, you either have to pull a John Boat or you need an airboat.”
Dowthitt may not be able to do that anymore. Senate Bill 408, which has already passed the State House and Senate and is now awaiting the Governor’s signature, would ban airboats from the section of the Brazos River that runs through Parker and Palo Pinto Counties.
“I don’t really know what the goal is on this thing,” said Donald Shirley, who bought his first airboat in the 1960s. “It’s something I never ever dreamed could happen, I didn’t think anybody could do that.”
Airboat operators on the Brazos said the proposed legislation is unfair and takes rights away from Texas citizens.
State Sen. Craig Estes (R – Witchita Falls) authored the bill.
A representative from his office said there has been no formal study showing airboats are harmful to the river’s natural habitat but called them a noise nuisance and a threat to public safety.
“There are many bans on motorized watercraft and airboats in Texas. For example, Texas Parks & Wildlife prohibits airboats in the 51 Wildlife Management Areas in coastal areas to protect habitat and prevent noise nuisance,” said Ren Nance, Committee Director in State Senator Craig Estes’ Office. “Many River Authorities ban personal watercraft on lakes as necessary to protect public safety.”
Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife also said the department knows of no study showing airboats damage the Brazos.
“We’re not endangering any wildlife, we’re in the water, the wildlife is on the bank,” Shirley said, “We don’t pollute the river, any drop of oil or gas, it doesn’t go in the water, it goes in the bottom of the boat.”
The ban would only apply to a section of the Brazos where fishermen said a wealthy landowner wants airboats off the river.
“If they’re a problem on this river, they’re a problem on every river in the State of Texas,” Dowthitt said. “As far as these being dangerous, they’re as dangerous as you want to make it, so is a car.”
The organization ‘Friends of the Brazos’ confirms the landowner, Alice Walton, an heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, asked them to support a ban on airboats. She did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the Texas Ethics Commission, since 2000, Walton has contributed $120,000 to Craig Estes and $237,000 to Governor Rick Perry.
“As with all legislation that makes it to his desk, the governor will thoughtfully review all bills in their final form and make a decision,” said Lucy Nashed, Deputy Press Secretary for the governor.
“I’m thinking that he’s done us wrong if he signs that bill,” Shirley said, “He’s sold out the poor people, and the rich lady’s bought us out.”
“This is a way of life for people, we love to fish, this is just what we’ve done all of our lives,” Dowthitt said, “Sometimes I wonder if this is still America.”
When asked if Walton’s contributions affected the legislation, Estes’ office said she is environmentally minded, which is why she supports it.
“Ms. Walton supports this bill,” Nance said, “but she is first most a conservationist and Texas is fortunate to have her interested in preserving our natural resources for all citizens to enjoy.”