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Johnson casts a line for sake of boaters

It's not that state Sen. Karen Johnson thinks people pay too much attention to the manatees. She just thinks no one is listening to the boaters.

So Johnson, D-Inverness, has introduced a bill similar to one that already has environmentalists and some House members upset: the so-called boaters' bill of rights.

The bill with the patriotic name would create a council of environmentalists and state and marine industry officials that would review all state-proposed rules related to waterways.

"This is basically a public information bill," Johnson said Wednesday. "It gives everybody the opportunity to have input into anything that may affect the waterways."

The bill, which Johnson introduced Feb. 11, awaits a hearing in the Senate's Natural Resources Committee. A House version survived a subcommittee test in January and is pending in the House's Natural Resources Committee.

The bill's success so far worries environmentalists, who see in it a darker intent than public access.

Charging that the proposed council is weighted unfairly with representatives of the boating industry, they fear the council will be used as a tool to stymie environmental regulations in a morass of paperwork.

"It will both slow down and create roadblocks for the adoption of rules designed to protect animals such as the manatee," said David Gluckman, an attorney and lobbyist for the Save the Manatee Club.

All 15 members of the proposed Boating Advisory Council would be appointed and would serve staggered two-year terms. Five members would be from the boating industry; three seats are designated for environmental groups; and the other seven members would be from state agencies and from the Senate and House.

The council would operate within the Department of Environmental Protection.

Noting that Johnson's bill was written by lobbyists for the marine industry, Gluckman said it is an attempt by big-money watercraft corporations to "get a leg up on everybody else."

"They want special access," he said.

But Johnson, who seemed unclear on some points about her bill, said she didn't understand the environmentalists' complaints.

"I don't know what the problem could be," she said, though she acknowledged that she did not recognize all the affiliations of the groups that would have seats on the council.

The council, she said, "won't have any veto powers."

"All they can do is make comments and recommendations on proposed regulations."

Environmentalists, though, say that when it comes to preserving natural resources, time is vital. A council with the power to add months or even years to the time it takes to get a law on the books is nearly as dangerous as one with veto power.

Local officials dismiss the environmentalists as being oversensitive. Ron Kitchen of the Crystal River Chamber of Commerce wholeheartedly supports the bill.

"I've heard of the so-called manatee killer bill, but it makes perfect sense to me," Kitchen said. "If we can get more common sense installed in the way we pass rules and regulations, I'm all for that."

Environmentalists say they are, too, and to that end, they have given Johnson an alternative bill that would create an Endangered Species Protection and Motor Boat council.

"This one is more balanced," Gluckman said. The current proposal, he said, "is not protecting the average boat owner who would rather see a manatee than go fast in the water. It's so the boat industry can sell more and bigger boats."