David Shealy’s list of grievances against the National Park Service is long and longstanding.
Shealy, the owner of Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, says the staff at the Big Cypress National Preserve has stolen his customers, blocked his access to the park and created a hazard by not providing hunters with adequate means of disposing of dead animal parts.
But his latest claim strikes at the heart of his being -- hindering his ability to market the skunk ape.
Shealy is the world’s foremost purveyor of skunk ape lore, the legends of a Yeti-like creature roaming the wilds of the Everglades and Big Cypress.
His Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is a curiosity along the Tamiami Trail and helps draw visitors to his business.
While dismissed by many as a made-up marketing ploy, the tale of the skunk ape has attracted the interest of reality TV.
A film crew has been in Ochopee this summer working with Shealy on a pilot, ostensibly for the Discovery Channel. The production company, Authentic Entertainment of Burbank, Calif., is behind reality staples including the Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” and Bravo’s “Flipping Out.”
But Shealy says the park service has been less than cooperative with the filmmakers as they work inside the more than 700,000-acre preserve.
“I can’t do anything out there without a bunch of rangers around me. I see people and groups filming from time to time and no one is treated as poorly as me,” Shealy said.
Park spokesman Bob DeGross denies Shealy is subject to more scrutiny than any other film crew working in the preserve. Filming for commercial purposes requires a permit, which Authentic Entertainment obtained, DeGross said. To protect the preserve, there are limitations on what can be done while filming.
For instance, DeGross said the film crew wanted to shoot a swamp buggy traversing a part of the preserve that is off-limits to vehicles. That wasn’t allowed but they were directed to another area where vehicles are allowed, he said.
DeGross said Authentic Entertainment has filmed in national parks before and is aware of the restrictions. “We’re willing to work with them very closely,” he said.
Shealy’s unease with the Park Service is at the point he feels he freedom of speech is threatened. To conduct tours inside the park he would need a license, which he doesn’t have. The reason: “If I tell a person I’m guiding the skunk ape is real, I’d lose my license,” he said.
Obtaining a license entails paying a $100 fee and undergoing training and orientation. Operators need park approval of the number of visitors and the frequency of tours in order to protect the natural resources, DeGross said. But he sees nothing in the rules that would stop a guide from talking about the skunk ape. “It’s an individual’s personal belief if the skunk ape exists,” DeGross said, adding, “We have no documented evidence the skunk ape exists.”
Plus, DeGross said, Shealy has his own land on which to peddle the skunk ape. “We don’t have any jurisdiction on his private property at all.”
Shealy may be all alone in feeling put upon by the park service over his quest for the skunk ape, but he has company in another area of concern.
The preserve’s free and low-cost camp sites are costing nearby campgrounds business, agrees Kenny Brown, manager of Outdoor Resorts Chokoloskee location.
Big Cypress Preserve offers RV camping for under $20 a night. At some times of the year, it is free.
By contrast, Brown charges as much as $89 a night for RV sites on the water. The Outdoor Resorts campground has more amenities, such as a pool, but it’s hard to beat free, he said. “That’s heavy duty competition,” he said.
Shealy charges about $25 night for RVs and has seen his business drop in recent years as the preserve has raised its profile on U.S. 41. “They built two big visitors centers and they tell (campers) to go to their free campsites. It’s just ruined me,” he said.
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten