A top state official drove from Tallahassee to Hernando County on Thursday, looked at a 420-foot-long, 25-foot-wide road improperly cut through sensitive, state-owned land and said, "It's not like it's a big deal."
Allen Egbert, assistant executive director of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, made the comment after examining the road that had been cleared by a private gun club across land just purchased by the state for more than $7-million.
The road was carved in the Chassahowitzka Swamp about three weeks ago by the Hernando Sportsman's Club so club members could get to their inaccessible firing range.
The club members were given permission by Game Commission Regional Director J.
O. Brown to use an old, mile-long, dirt road to get from U.S. 19 into the swamp. They also received permission to "improve" a scrub-covered truck track that joined the dirt road to the club's 80-acre firing range.
Egbert said the improvements undertaken by the club included removing pine trees with a diameter of 9 inches, clearing undergrowth and widening a "fairly narrow and confined" one-vehicle track and using fill dirt to level the road bed.
"We (at the state agency) couldn't have done (such work) without getting permission from the Division of State Lands, so it's obvious that for these people to do it, they'd require the same permission," he said.
But Brown cut through the bureaucracy to accommodate people who wanted access to their property, Egbert said.
"We were trying to be responsive, and it backfired on us," Egbert said.
"I wish we hadn't done it in the way we did it. I wish we had done it by the numbers. We fell down on our procedures and that's not good.
"From this point on, we'll be going by the numbers.
"But it's not (a violation) of major proportions in my view."
Egbert made the trip from Tallahassee after hearing complaints about the construction work. On Wednesday, he received photographs of the newly widened road from an employee of his agency.
"I thought (the road) would be worse than it was," he said Thursday.
Egbert said he would report his findings to Robert Brantly, executive director of the Game Commission.
"I will tell him where I think some of the blame lies," he said.
"There might have to be some reclamation work done on the swath. . . . And, if we have to repair it, it's going to cost some money."
Egbert said he did not know how much it would cost for the cleared land to be restored to its original state. He also said he did not know who would pay for such restoration.
"Someone could argue _ and argue fairly compellingly _ are they (the gun club) liable or are we jointly liable?" he said.
Each of those questions will take time to sort out, he said.
For now, the club members are prohibited from using state property to get to their firing range.
Until Wednesday, a chain stretched across the U.S. 19 entrance to the state property had a Game Commission lock at one end and a Sportsman's Club lock at the other, so representatives of either group could get into the state preserve. Now, Game Commission locks secure both ends of the chain to posts in the ground.
Egbert said the club will have to negotiate with the Division of State Land to get permission to use the property as an access route to its firing range.
Randie Rickert, president of the Sportsman's Club, said he expects those negotiations to be quick and successful.
"We hope to have the access negotiated by tomorrow," he said Thursday.
Rickert said his club asked state Rep. Chuck Smith, D-Brooksville, "to intercede on our behalf" with the state to expedite the access approval.
Rickert said he thinks his club has been unfairly criticized for the road construction.
"We had permission (from the Game Commission) to improve the road and we did so," he said.
He said his club had struggled since 1988 to find an acceptable access route to its acreage. The state's Jan. 10 purchase of the adjacent property seemed to _ finally _ open a route for club members to use, he said.
When the development of the club's firing range is complete, "we will be providing (the public) a first-class park," he said. The firing range, although owned and primarily used by club members, will be opened to the public for special events, he said.
"We are a very exclusive club," he said. "By the very nature of our activities, I can guarantee you there's not a felon in the club. You can't even say that about a church.
"We are all law-abiding citizens. You can't own a firearm and be a felon."