Managing the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

January 20, 2018.   The following Letter to the Editor was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

Recent daily editions of the Chronicle have included inserts from the The Friends of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge (Friends) imploring readers to write Governor Scott and Crystal River City Council members asking them to support a continued U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) lead role in managing the Three Sisters Springs property (property), rather than having the City of Crystal River (City) assume that role.  The insert states or implies that City takeover of property management would be detrimental to the manatee, and shift 100% of the cost for improving the property to the City and its taxpayers.

As a Friends member, I support their mission, but have a different take on this issue.

Last year, the Service informed the City that it would not spend additional money on property improvements without first updating the management agreement between the parties, reasserting its continued lead role.  The City then voted to terminate that agreement and assume management control of the property if a mutually acceptable agreement could not be reached in six months.  That period has passed, and a decision may be forthcoming at the January 22 City Council meeting.

Clearly, the Service and City have experienced difficulties in defining and agreeing on their shared roles, responsibilities and priorities for managing the property.  Regardless of who exercises the lead property management role (and I doubt that a City lead would result in harm to the resource), the Service will continue to maintain its presence and lead role in managing manatees as per the Endangered Species Act.  It will also continue its lead role as manager of the lands and waters contained within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.  The City, along with the County, will maintain its primary interest in promoting tourism.

As is often the case, key questions and decisions revolve around money.

If the Service loses its lead management role for the property, will the funding appropriated in its budget for property improvements be re-programmed to other areas, as Service personnel have suggested?  Given this Administration’s budget requests proposing large reductions for Service and other environmental programs in 2018, with similar prospects in subsequent years, how much money will remain available in future Service budgets for property improvements, not to mention refuge operations and visitor use programs?  If the City assumes the lead role in property management, and Service money is not available, how will future improvements be funded?  Can State grants be awarded?  Can county funds be obtained?

Service and City officials will need to maintain a high degree of cooperation regardless of which entity carries out the lead role in managing the Three Sisters Property.  Hopefully they can negotiate a new set of mutually acceptable roles, responsibilities and funding arrangements.  As a former Service employee and program manager, I believe an agreement can and should be reached which retains available property improvement funding regardless of lead and supporting roles.

Gary Rankel,  Citrus Hills, Florida