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

 

Improve the quality of Citrus county waters

November 24, 2017.  My following letter was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

Thanks to Senator Simpson, and to the Chronicle for its November 19 Opinion supporting his plan to improve the quality of county waters by removing and replacing polluting septic tanks with a modern central sewer system.

I’ve read far too many articles, commentaries and opinions praising recent misguided efforts to “save our waters” or “save our bay” by raking, harvesting, vacuuming or dredging up deposited muck and Lyngbya.  They generally fail to mention the resultant impacts of increased turbidity and the accelerated dispersal of deposited nutrients and Lyngbya to adjacent areas, thereby promoting further algae blooms and facilitating the expansion of Lyngbya infestations.

Rarely, have I seen acknowledgements that such efforts are temporary, requiring repeated cleaning, over and over again, as nutrients, notably nitrogen and phosphorus, from sewage effluent and fast-release fertilizers continue entering our aquifer and surface waters.

Many articles have gone on to applaud the planting of Rockstar vegetation in these “cleaned” areas, often not mentioning the unsightly fences needed to protect these patches from the next wave of manatees seeking a nice snack to munch on.  Seagrass and other macrophyte planting programs should be considered, but only once the causes of their demise are addressed, and conditions favoring their survival over competitive nutrient loving nuisance species are achieved.

I’ve yet to read an authoritative report confirming any lasting effect of these “clean-up” efforts, or any sustained reestablishment of the Rockstar vegetation once the fencing has been removed welcoming the manatees in to chow down.

It’s about time we abandon these quick fixes which simply address the symptoms of the problem, and redirect the millions of dollars wasted on them to tackle its root causes: nutrient overloading and retention resulting from septic tank leakage and over-fertilization.

Our elected representatives need to recognize our budget limitations and become more fiscally responsible by prioritizing cost-effective programs and actions that will make a lasting difference.  Resources are simply not available to fund everyone’s pet projects, no matter how well-intentioned.  Supporting ineffective efforts may create a few jobs and help gain a few more votes, but that’s not what good leaders do.

Ditto for half-hearted fast-release fertilizer restrictions.

Other high priority actions deserving of funding and attention to protect our waters include wetland restoration to aid in nutrient filtration and the curtailment of groundwater pumping throughout the watershed to improve spring flows and increase flushing activity.  Amendment 1 was recently approved by voters to fund just such programs.

It’s probably too late to restore Kings Bay to former Rainbow River standards, but let’s not let it become the next Indian River Lagoon or Lake Okeechobee, where nutrient overloading and resultant algae blooms have devastated once diverse ecosystems.

Hopefully, by next year’s Save our Waters Week, our leaders will be doing just that by placing their highest priority on supporting Senator Simpson’s funding proposal.

Gary Rankel
Citrus Hills, Florida

Letter to the Editor of the Citrus County Chronicle

August 12, 2017.  My following letter to the editor was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on this date.

I love reading my morning newspaper.  The first thing I do each morning, after making my first pot of coffee, is settle into my comfy rocker-recliner to check out the breaking news.  Unlike what I see on cable TV, most of it seems to be real, not fake.
I’ve tried reading those newfangled online e-papers, but have the darndest time figuring out how to enlarge the print and turn the page.  So, I’ll continue stumbling out in the dark each morning searching my driveway for the real thing.
My job took me to Long Island, California’s redwood country and the nation’s capital, where my days began with the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post.  Now, my morning ritual begins with the Citrus County Chronicle.
So, instead of learning if President Trump managed to drain the swamp overnight (or drown in it), I now find out which roads in uninhabited Citrus Springs neighborhoods got paved, and which county commissioner is on the hot seat.  And, instead of reading whether Obamacare or Trumpcare is gaining steam, I learn how much muck has been removed from Kings bay, how the folks in Ozello are doing in keeping a condominium complex from being built in their back yards and how disruptive swimmers have been to our cherished manatee.
The Chronicle does usually include a one-page Nation & World section which attempts to summarize the goings on around the globe, but I also subscribe to the Tampa Bay Times and USA Today, just in case it misses something.  I enjoy all three, but now look forward to the Chronicle’s coverage of the community and Nature Coast area that I’ve come to call home.
I especially enjoy the editorial section and Publisher Gerry Mulligan’s witty Sunday column, and occasionally submit a letter to the editor attempting to match his wit.
I bypass the Sound Off section, believing that transparency should prevail, and anyone feeling a need to convey their bits of wisdom should reveal their identity.  I do read the letter submittals, but wish those chosen would focus more on local and regional issues, and less on the all too frequent polarizing expressions of political partisanship.  Folks can tune into CNN, MSNBC or Fox News for that.
After all, it is a community newspaper, is it not, as Mr. Mulligan appeared to proclaim in recent recurring ads posing with arms crossed and peering out at his readership?  I do wonder, however, why this community paper includes a separate Community page.
Yes, I do miss my Washington Post, but not the daily bumper-to-bumper rush hour commutes to and from Washington, D.C.  Rush hour commuters I now encounter consist of a few of my neighbors traveling bumper to bumper in their carts on their way to the first hole of our nearby golf course.  I smile and wave as I pass them by with my kayak on board, failing to understand why anyone would choose to chase after a little white ball than spend a relaxful morning on the water with fishing pole in hand.
I do continue to encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic while passing by our boat ramps, most at a standstill waiting in long lines to launch their vessels.  I don’t smile and wave at them because, like Washington, D.C. commuters, they don’t look happy, and probably wouldn’t wave back.
Maybe some of these boaters will share their experiences in future Letters to the Editor.  No Sound Offs, please.

Letter to the Citrus County Chronicle

August 3, 2017.   My following letter to the editor was published in today’s Citrus County Chronicle.

As an avid angler, I always look forward to the fishing reports on the back page of the Chronicle’s Thursday sports section.  In a recent report, Rick Burns, who I knew from his days managing the Floral City Anglers Club several years ago (Hey, Rick), posed a number of questions, including the following.  How come you can do no wrong fishing at one place one day, and then go back to the same place the next day using the same stuff, and catch nothing?  And, how come some fish show up in one place one year and not the next?

I also have a question.  How come 10% of anglers catch 90% of the fish?  And, more importantly, how come I’m always one of the 90% catching only 10% of the fish?  Lately, it seems like I’m one of the 99% catching only 1% of the fish.

I never miss Captain William Toney’s contribution to the weekly report on what’s biting and where along the Nature Coast, and Captain Dan Clymer’s online blog describing the boatloads of fish that his clients bring to the docks each day, searching for a clue on where I should go and what I should use to duplicate their success.  I’m quite sure these guys are among the 10% of anglers who catch 90% percent of the fish.

I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out why, no matter how hard I try, I’m still in the 90% group who catch 10% of the fish, or worse.  Is it because, unlike the good captains, I can’t seem to locate the 10% of area where 90% of the fish reside?.  Or, maybe, of the fish who spot my lure, the smartest 90% recognize it as being a fraud, leaving only the dumbest 10% of fish residing in the 90% of the least productive water to chew on it?  Or, could it be that Captain Dan’s and William’s happy clients catch 90% of the available fish, leaving only 10% for me?

Whatever my problem is, I’ve decided to find a hiding spot in the mangroves along the river and wait for Captain Dan or William to motor by with their next group of clients, at which time I’ll follow them out to their secret hotspots.  Since I fish in a kayak, I’ll have to paddle like h_ _ _ to keep them in sight, but it will be worth it to finally join the 10% club.

Once I do, I’m 100% certain that, along with the rest of the 10% club, I’ll not be sharing my secrets with the other unfortunate 90%!  And, fish stocks need not fear, since I release at least 90% of the fish I catch.

Pirates Cove Letter

June 18, 2017.  My following letter was sent to county and state officials on this date, and an abbreviated version of it was published in the Citrus County Chronicle on July 5, 2017.

To:

Scott Carnahan, Citrus County Commissioner; Ronald Kitchen,       Citrus County Commissioner; Brian Coleman, Citrus County Commissioner;  Jimmie Smith, Citrus County Commissioner; Jeff Kinnard, Citrus County Commissioner;  Wilton Simpson, Florida State Senator;  Ralph Massullo, Jr.  Florida State Representative

Cc:  Randy Oliver, Citrus County Administrator;  Mark Green,                 Director, Growth Management Department;   Joanna Coutu,             Director, Land Development Division;   Laura Marley,              Principal Planner, Land Development Division;   Adam Thomas             Director, Visitors and Convention Bureau;   Bruce McLaughlin     Bruce McLaughlin Consulting Services, Inc.;   John Green                    Committee to Save Ozello

From:      Gary Rankel,    Retired, Citrus Hills, Florida

Subject:  Pirate’s Cove Development Application CPA/AA/PUD-17-05

Since 2012, Mr. George Decker of Kodak, Tennessee has submitted applications to develop a resort condominium complex on his 3.6 acres of mostly vacant property known as Pirate’s Cove in Ozello (www.ozello.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Attachment-4-Zoning-and-ELU.pdf) .  This property once housed a restaurant, tavern and 10-unit motel / RV complex that was destroyed by the “no-name” storm in March 1993.

The property rests a few feet above sea level in the ecologically sensitive St. Martin’s Marsh and Aquatic Preserve, and adjacent to the county-owned Ozello Community Park.  Surrounding navigable waters support a broad array of fish and wildlife, including manatees and other species listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Having failed to win county approval of past proposals, Mr. Decker has submitted the new subject application for consideration (www.ozello.net/pirates-cove-land-owners-plans/ ).  To proceed with his plans, the acreage would first have to be re-zoned from Coastal and Lakes Residential to Coastal and Lakes Commercial, to conform with the two small parcels already listed as CLC on the county’s Current Zoning Map.  These same two parcels, however, are listed as CLR on the county’s Future Land Use Map, which seems puzzling.

The community of Ozello has consistently opposed Mr. Decker’s proposals, continues to believe that his current application is incompatible with the area, and has formed the Committee to Save Ozello  (www.ozello.net) to organize resistance to his ideas.  I’d like to join the community in recommending rejection of subject application, and propose doing so in conjunction with a follow-up plan to expand the tourism and outdoor recreation values of the area for the overall benefit of the county.  Simply rejecting the application without following through would leave the property vacant, thereby inviting future development proposals in this environmentally sensitive areas.

As an avid angler and retired biologist with more than 30 years of experience managing and developing fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation resources, I have long felt that kayak fishing has received short shrift in the county’s tourism program, and that Pirate’s Cove should serve as the centerpiece in a series of eco-tourism destinations for paddlers, anglers, picnickers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts to enjoy (http://fishingkayaks.us/no-motor-zone/) .  The larger and better known paddling sites in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoons on the Space Coast, and Tampa and Sarasota Bays to the south may remain more popular, however, they can’t begin to provide the same uncrowded “Old Florida” experience of the relatively unspoiled Nature Coast.

Within a short paddle of the Pirate’s Cove property, folks can encounter manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, rays, a variety of shorebirds and other marine life in gorgeous backcountry settings.  Excellent fisheries habitat exists around miles of mangrove shorelines, extensive salt marshes, sea grass beds, oyster bars and hard bottom substrates, all of which serve as nursery areas for fish and and the critters they feed on.  Seatrout, redfish, snook, flounder and other species are there for the taking.

Paddlesports, including kayaking, paddleboarding and kayak fishing are the fastest growing outdoor recreation activities in the country, with Florida and California leading the way in numbers of users.  The suitability of  Ozello to host such activities is nicely depicted by the Kayakbeach folks at http://kayakbeach.com/ozello/ozello.html and on my website (http://fishingkayaks.us).

Anglers and eco-tourists in their plastic vessels can paddle west three miles to the Gulf and search for shell middens on Mullet Key, which was inhabited by Native Americans in pre-Columbian times and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1986.  From there, it’s a short paddle to the adjacent Sandy Hook Key for a swim in the expansive sandy area on its north side, and to the nearby Bird Keys, a popular bird nesting area.  Others may want to head east to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the remote Salt River backcountry, where you can paddle for hours without seeing another soul.  Anglers looking to bring home a fresh fish dinner are rarely disappointed, and are assured of quality experiences even on slow fishing days.

An eco-tourism oriented park at Pirate’s Cove would offer the perfect complement to the county’s headline attractions including manatee interactions, scalloping, biking and offshore fishing.  Such an area would have broad local and regional appeal, require minimal maintenance and provide solid benefit-cost rewards. Overnight camping, parking and launching fees could be considered to generate revenue if desired.  Lots identified on the County Owned Parcels map at the Northwest and Southeast edges of Sanddollar Lane might be incorporated into the park.  The site would undoubtedly be included on popular kayak fishing tournament circuits.

Mr. Decker’s condominiums, sewage system and other structures would, no doubt, end up in this pristine marine ecosystem during the next “no-name’ storm or hurricane, resulting in significant impacts to both the environment and listed species.  Doing nothing more than rejecting his re-zoning request would still leave the property subject to being divided into six or more lots for six or more residences, six or more septic tanks and numerous related structures, possibly causing as much damage to the environment as the condo complex.

Conversely, an eco-tourism park would require only portable and easily transportable structures such as porta-jons, picnic tables, stationary grills, and, perhaps, a small kayak rental and food service trailer, all of which could be secured in place or safely cleared from the site before arrival of the next “big blow”, leaving it in its natural state.  Related service and caretaker jobs could be made available to the community.

For a Pirate’s Cove park to become reality, Mr. Decker would have to become a partner or willing seller, an unlikely result if his property is re-zoned for commercial purposes.  Commission support, along with that of Senator Simpson and Representative Massullo, would be required to rank this park project high enough to compete successfully for a portion of the $4 million in RESTORE Act funds assigned to the county from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement, or to warrant an earmark in the state’s budget, as occurred with recent set-asides for Riverwalk and land acquisition for a park in Homosassa.

Stranger things have happened as when the former owners of the Three Sisters Springs property agreed to sell for a more noble cause.

Nothing will happen without your support and leadership.

Mr. Decker’s representative is Mr. Bruce McLaughlin; Bruce McLaughlin Consulting Services, Inc.; Indian Rocks; Florida.