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Tea party members tackle a new issue: manatees

Everybody knows what the tea party members oppose. High taxes. Big government. Obama's health care plan. High-speed rail.

Now, for at least some local tea party members, there's one more to add: manatee protection.

A Citrus County tea party group has announced that it's fighting new restrictions on boating and other human activities in Kings Bay that have been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We cannot elevate nature above people," explained Edna Mattos, 63, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots, in an interview. "That's against the Bible and the Bill of Rights."

Federal officials "want to restrict the entire bay," she contended. "They don't want people here."

Last week, Mattos, who says she has 800 members signed up on her group's website, and other tea party members picketed outside a public hearing on the new rules. Because they weren't allowed to bring their signs inside, she said, "my anger took over" and she sent a sharply worded e-mail to thousands of tea party members across Florida, urging them to write to Congress to block the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Then, on Tuesday, Barbara Bartlett, who identified herself as a tea party member, told the Hernando County Commission that the federal wildlife agency had no business sticking its nose into Citrus County. But parts of Kings Bay have been a federal wildlife refuge since 1980.

Tea party members are far from alone in opposing the new rules. The Crystal River City Council and Citrus County Commission contend the new regulations will be bad for the local economy.

Kings Bay, famed as the one place in Florida where humans can swim with and even touch the manatees, is facing a renewed battle over how much protection for manatees is too much. That argument has been going on there since Jacques Cousteau featured Kings Bay's manatees in his 1972 documentary Forgotten Mermaids.

When the first sanctuary rules were put in place in 1980, there were about 100 manatees there. Now federal officials estimate that more than 550 manatees use the bay year-round, and in the winter more than 100,000 people show up in Crystal River to see them.

But of the 16 boat-related deaths that have occurred in Kings Bay, 13 happened in the past decade, and half of those were in the summer.

"I don't know of a more dangerous place for manatees in the summer," said Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club.

New rules proposed by the wildlife agency last month would end the controversial summer water sport zone, which allowed fast-moving boats to zoom through Kings Bay.

If approved, all of Kings Bay would become a refuge, and a set of temporary rules posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this winter would become permanent. The rules enabled the federal agency to establish closed areas or other rules anywhere in the bay, as situations arise.

For instance, federal officials can establish temporary no-entry areas lasting up to two weeks if a cold front hits before the manatee season begins, or after the manatee season has closed, to prevent manatees from being harassed in Kings Bay. They're accepting public comments on the proposal through Aug. 22.

To Mattos, what the agency has proposed will erode private property rights. She predicted they will prevent people who own waterfront land from tying up boats at their docks "because you can't have anything that interferes with the manatee because they'll get trampled on."

Rose called that argument "dead wrong." People whose property sits on a manatee sanctuary — where boat traffic is not allowed — may have to get stickers on their boats allowing them exclusive access, but that's it, he said.

Current regulations have helped boost the manatee population from 100 to 500, so clearly they're sufficient, Mattos said. In fact, in her view, the manatee rules tie in to global development issues.

"We believe that (federal regulators') aim is to control the fish and wildlife, in addition to the use of the land that surrounds this area, and the people that live here and visit. … As most of us know, this all ties in to the United Nations' Agenda 21 and Sustainability."

Agenda 21 is a program, adopted by the U.N. in 1992, to encourage countries around the world to promote only development that does not harm nature. Pundit Glenn Beck and other conservatives have attacked it as an attempt to impose world government's rules on every aspect of American lives. The Citrus County tea party group's website says Agenda 21 is "designed to make humans into livestock."

Mattos said she enjoys showing off the manatees to her grandchildren, but she had little use for the Save the Manatee Club, explaining, "If some of these environmental movements had been around in the days of the dinosaurs, we'd be living in Jurassic Park now."

Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt and Logan Neill and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

For details of rules

For more details on the proposed Kings Bay rules, including instructions on how to comment on the proposal, go to www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2011/11-045.html.

Tea party members tackle a new issue: manatees 07/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 8:43am]
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