Everglades ‘Ranger Dave Fowler’ reflects on life on bay

Ranger Dave Fowler, who retired this past May as Everglades National Park’s Key Largo district ranger, has done some out-of-the-ordinary things during his 25-plus-year career on Florida Bay.

There was the time he drove through a waterspout in a boat, just to see what would happen.

“I would not recommend doing that,” he said, recalling that he and his equipment got completely doused with salt water.

There was also the time he refloated a grounded helicopter in the bay.

“That was a weird one. There were no engines, and it had to come down,” he explained. “I helped refloat the helicopter on air bags.”

And for 17 years straight, Fowler was the exclusive contact for the Secret Service to arrange former President George Bush Sr.’s visits to the park.

“I first shook hands with him during the first Gulf War,” Fowler said. “I realized I was shaking hands with absolutely the most powerful man in the world. It was an incredible moment.”

But the accomplishments he is most proud of include preventing the installation of large Coast Guard-approved channel markers in the bay and playing a key role in drawing up the Everglades National Park General Management Plan, which was officially signed last week.

“That map,” Fowler said, referring to the GMP, “was the culmination of my career, as far as I’m concerned.”

His career in Florida Bay started with a promotion in 1988. That year, Fowler, raised in a suburb of Los Angeles and a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona, was a dispatcher for the National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah. He received two job offers at once: to be either a park ranger in Colorado or a park ranger in the Flamingo district of the Everglades. Fowler decided to go for the Flamingo job because of the higher NPS job grade and “because of the fishing,” he said.

And what if he accepted the Colorado job instead?

“Colorado would have been a complete game changer,” he said. “I wouldn’t have met my wife and had my three beautiful kids.”

Fowler met his wife, Rachelle Fowler, in 1990 when she was volunteering at Flamingo with a student conservation association. “He was my handsome ranger,” Rachelle Fowler said.

They married in 1992. After moving briefly to northern Florida to be close to Rachelle’s family, the couple returned to the Keys in 1993 when Dave was offered a job at ENP’s Key Largo district as a park ranger.

Fowler discovered he had an aptitude for communicating with the users of Florida Bay as a member of park law enforcement.

“I think he just knows how to talk to people,” Rachelle Fowler said. “He listens well. People share their thoughts with him, more than others. He’s compassionate and friendly.”

Park Ranger Brandon Moore agrees. He worked with Fowler at the Key Largo station for eight years, and Fowler served as his boss for three.

“He’s a great communicator — one of the things that I look up to him the most for,” Moore said.

Noting that encounters with the users of the park, such as fishing guides and recreational boaters, can sometimes get adversarial, Moore said, “In law enforcement, contacts can be high-risk. The ability to communicate in an effective manner and to de-escalate a situation is important.”

Peter Frezza, a longtime friend of Fowler’s, is both a fishing guide and a biologist at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center.

“I first met Dave by getting pulled over by him. I wasn’t doing anything wrong — he was doing a [safety] check. That’s how everyone meets Dave,” Frezza said. “He’s a unique guy. He’s the type of guy to tell you the type of tree you’re looking at and the type of fish you caught, and write you a ticket at the same time.”

But Frezza said that Fowler’s communication skills came in handy when he helped draw up the Florida Bay portion of the Everglades National Park GMP, which is a 500-page document for how the NPS will manage the park’s land and water for the next 30 years. According to Frezza, regulations hadn’t been changed since the 1940s, during which time the South Florida population and use of the park had grown.

The overuse of vessels in the shallow waters of the bay has a negative impact on the wildlife of the habitat, Frezza pointed out, particularly when boat propellers scar seagrass meadows. To protect the bay, the plan designates almost 26 percent of the 850-square-mile estuary as a pole-troll zone. Boaters will not be able to use their primary gas-powered engines in those areas. Instead, they can only use poles to push their vessels or small electric trolling motors. It also makes another 6 percent of the bay into a pole-troll-idle zone.

“We were overdue for regulations for how vessels operate in the bay. Dave met with many user groups, such as fishing clubs, guides associations, recreational anglers, researchers — a tireless effort to bring cohesion in the community,” Frezza said. “There’s one thing I can say about Dave — he brought cohesion for a plan that he knew would protect the bay for generations to come. He’s a modern-day hero.”

Preventing the Coast Guard-approved markers from being installed in the bay was also a challenge to Fowler. Staff at the Everglades thought it was important to come into compliance with the Coast Guard requirements for navigable channels, said Frezza.

“Dave wanted to keep a backcountry, wilderness feel to Florida Bay, and he played a role in throwing the idea out and keeping the bay’s integrity,” he said.

Fowler explained he had to diplomatically tell NPS staff that the markers “would kill the bay. We would have created a boating highway system out of 400,000 acres of wilderness.”

After some effort, the project was shelved.

“It was a very difficult time. But it’s an achievement I’m very proud of,” he said, noting that he was still promoted to district ranger after that period five years ago.

Now about those bees

Fowler, in addition to being a park ranger and a soccer dad (his children are Rebekah, 16, Drake, 12, and Matthew, 10), is a passionate beekeeper.

It started in 1998 when a ranger boat returned to Key Largo from being repaired in Flamingo with a swarm of bees under one of the seats. Staff squirted the bees with a hose.

“By the time I caught wind of it, I lifted the seat and there were just a few bees, disoriented,” Fowler recalled. “I put on my mosquito jacket and scooped up all the bees into a 5-gallon bucket. It just seemed a natural thing to do.”

Fowler tried to re-create a beehive with those bees, but he discovered he couldn’t because the queen bee had been lost. But his semi-professional hobby continued from there. Today, his telephone number is with the county for emergency beehive removal, and he sells the honey he collects from his “bee yard” on Card Sound Road.

He speculated he loves beekeeping for the therapeutic value: “I can tell you when your face is deep into 40,000 bees, you’re not thinking of much else.”

So after his full career as a park ranger, with all the safety checks, bees, downed helicopters, waterspouts and ex-presidents he could handle, Fowler had to retire last spring, at age 57, due to federal regulations on law enforcement positions. He would have loved to have stayed, he said, in order to help implement the General Management Plan.

“The biggest fear is the park can’t implement this plan as rapidly as it needs to be done,” he said.

Fowler holds out a little hope that a non-law-enforcement job might open up at the park. If nothing turns up, he and his wife and children may move to the western mountains of North Carolina to take care of family.

Meanwhile, since Fowler left, Park Ranger Moore has noticed something in the bay.

“Even today, I can’t go out on the water on a patrol for more than a couple of days without somebody asking how’s Dave Fowler doing,” Moore said. “That shows right there he’s made an impact on the local community. The amount of people he knows is incredible. When you’re a good person, people like you, and it shows.”

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