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Chamber dropped as manatee radio sponsor

Plans for the manatee education radio station will proceed, but without the help of the Crystal River Chamber of Commerce.

Questions about who would control the content of the radio messages and a money crunch brought on by the March storm led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the Save the Manatee Club rather than the Chamber sponsor the station, Crystal River National Refuge manager Cameron Shaw said this week.

Last year, Shaw had announced plans to begin the AM informational radio station to better inform visitors to the area about the endangered animals and the rules in place to protect them.

Shaw offered to work with the Chamber of Commerce to establish the station and had sought $4,000 from a sponsor to pay for the start-up costs.

But several months ago Chamber officials objected to putting up members' money for the project without any control over the messages broadcast. Specifically, they said they were concerned about messages that might discourage visitors from going onto the water.

Shaw has said that the Fish and Wildlife Service will not give up control of the content, and he added that the recent federal lawsuit and pending federal legislation regarding wildlife refuges may mean that new recreational restrictions could be just around the corner.

Recently, the Chamber publicly voiced concerns about having enough money to recover from the March storm that destroyed the organization's office.

Shaw said he understood that the money problems helped keep the Chamber from visiting Washington, D.C., this week to talk about the wildlife refuge legislation in a Senate subcommittee hearing. The Chamber has also been able to raise only a few hundred dollars toward the station.

Several days ago, Shaw told Chamber officials that he was going to allow the Save the Manatee Club to sponsor the station. Bills from the installation of the radio equipment at a local dive shop are about due and Shaw said he wants to pay those bills with the sponsorship money.

Save the Manatee Club officials have said that they hope to use the Crystal River station as a pilot to see if such an idea could work in other places throughout the state frequented by the endangered manatees.

"If the Chamber of Commerce is so short of cash that they can't send someone to Washington, I would certainly hate to take away any of their money," Shaw said.

Another consideration was that the Chamber appeared to be gearing up to again fight various manatee protection regulations, the same regulations his agency is charged with enforcing.

"If they're that strapped for cash and with this other issue rearing its ugly head again, I just see this as the prelude to a never-ending series of problems that both sides could do without," Shaw said.

Ron Kitchen, Chamber president, said he was disappointed about the decision and that Chamber members were concerned about the content of the radio messages.

Still, the failed partnership does not preclude the Chamber fro working with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the future, Kitchen said.

"Just because a group of people couldn't reach an agreement . . . it doesn't mean that we're mortal enemies," he said. "What it came down to be was that there were just too many concerns on each side."

The script for the initial broadcast was completed several weeks ago. Shaw said he hopes to send it to manatee advocate and singer Jimmy Buffett in the next week or so. Buffett is expected to read the message.

Roadside signs will promote the station. The first broadcast could be as early as this fall.