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Coalition battles proposed demolition of dikes

The Endangered Species Coalition says the project at Potts Preserve would bring in airboats and harm the environment.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


INVERNESS -- An environmental group is protesting the proposed removal of dikes at Potts Preserve, asserting that doing so will lead to airboat use that will cause "incessant, irreparable degradation of the marshes."

The Endangered Species Coalition, a national organization with offices in Florida, says increased airboat and all-terrain vehicle use will make it harder to manage scrub jay habitats and may cause birds, gopher tortoises and other wildlife to flee.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District recently developed a plan to remove the dikes, which were installed decades ago to create dry land for cattle.

The dikes do not prohibit airboats and ATVs now, a Swiftmud official, Bruce Wirth, said Wednesday. So removing the roads should not "open the floodgates."

With the dikes gone, water flows will improve, restoring wetland habitats and recharging the aquifer, advocates say.

But an attorney for the coalition pointed to a 1999 analysis by two University of Florida experts who concluded that the dikes, or berm roads, have no major negative impact on fish and wildlife populations.

Flows would increase, they said, but would not have the desired effect: increasing flooding in the Hernando Pool.

"After extensive, independent review of the facts, circumstances, science and politics surrounding the decision to proceed on the project, it is obvious that the proposed removal of the berm road is completely antithetical to any scientifically based understanding of "restoration,' " coalition attorney Lesley Blackner wrote in a Jan. 25 letter.

The letter was mailed to officials at Swiftmud and the agencies that are reviewing the application: the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Swiftmud's application was based on public requests to reconnect the preserve with the Hernando Pool and to provide access to airboats.

Blackner, who is the attorney representing the Sierra Club in litigation concerning the Suncoast Parkway, sees a contradiction between "restoration" and airboats.

"The irony cannot be lost that airboat access will only result in incessant, irreparable degradation of the marshes," she wrote.

"It should not be forgotten that these marshes were acquired for public ownership over 20 years ago precisely because of their pristine quality."

She goes on to charge that Swiftmud and the DEP have "ignored the strenuous objections" of citizens who oppose airboat access to Potts for hiking, bird watching and general passive recreation.

Dick Rice, a Tampa resident who said he has hiked in Potts for the past decade, said the damage of airboats is already painfully apparent. "If we open it up more, we're going to have genocide up there."

Wirth, director of Swiftmud's resource management department, defended the application. He said its major thrust is to restore water flow in the preserve, not benefit airboats.

Still, when submitting an application, the district must consider public interest, Wirth said, and there was considerable support for removing the dikes, from airboaters and water activists alike.

Swiftmud and the DEP had resisted for years efforts to remove the dikes, saying it would do more harm than good because wetlands and creatures have adapted to the changed environment.

That resistance was broken down over time in large part because of the dogged efforts of TOO FAR, a Floral City-based group that is closely aligned with airboaters.

The group, whose full name is Taxpayers Outraged Organization For Accountable Representation, has presented reams of documents supporting its claims about the natural flows at Potts Preserve.

TOO FAR also has benefited from political change at Swiftmud, the most notable example being the appointment of Al Coogler to the governing board. Coogler supports removing the dikes at Potts and at nearby Flying Eagle Ranch.

Blackner, who feels political interests are overriding environmental concerns, said a management plan should be in place to control airboat use on sovereign land.

Wirth said that is out of Swiftmud's hands because sovereign land belongs to the state. The DEP is trying to delegate authority of the submerged land to Swiftmud, but the water agency's governing board says it will not accept the offer.

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