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Primal promise

After years of battles with Lykes Bros., the state has claimed a pristine prize. Can it match the corporation's success in preserving Fisheating Creek and its vast array of wildlife?

David Austin tosses the key ring on what passes for a dashboard in his swamp buggy and cranks up the rackety engine.

The buggy splashes through the soggy marshes a few miles west of Lake Okeechobee. When Austin comes to a fence with a padlocked gate he grabs the ring and picks out the key labeled "Do Not Duplicate." This is the key that opens every gate across the thousands of acres of Glades County owned by Lykes Bros.

This is the key the state Florida has been fighting to get its hands on for 10 years.

Lykes Bros. has owned land along Fisheating Creek since before the Depression. For years, the Tampa-based conglomerate allowed limited access, but in 1988 the company said the visitors were causing problems and kicked everyone out. The corporation felled 40 cypress trees across the creek, strung barbed wire and hired guards to patrol.

The locals didn't take kindly to this. They cut the fences and used blowtorches on the locks. Lykes fought back with lawsuits. Environmental groups sued Lykes to reopen the 51-mile waterway.

They were joined by Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who pitted the might of the state against Lykes' corporate muscle as they wrestled over who owned the creek. Lykes lost in front of a jury but appealed.

Finally, after 10 years of legal battles, the state is on the verge of getting that key _ and a lot more. All sides have approved a settlement: The state will get 9,000 acres of creek bed for free but will pay Lykes still-to-be-determined millions for another 9,000 acres along its banks. That land will become the state's newest wildlife management area.

Lykes is also selling the state its right to develop another 42,000 of its 350,000 acres _ in effect guaranteeing it will not put a big factory in the middle of what is now quiet pasture.

As the Fisheating Creek fight dragged on these 10 years, Lykes was demonized as the evil corporation depriving the average citizen access to public land. Now it's being hailed as a fine environmental steward for protecting its property. The company's former opponents concede that thanks to Lykes, the creek is a time capsule from the days before strip shopping centers and slapdash subdivisions.

"You would literally think you were transported back to the time when Ponce de Leon discovered Florida," said Dom Coscia of Pompano Beach, who has led some 50 kayaking trips down the creek.

Fisheating Creek is one of the few intact river systems left in Florida. Nothing has broken the connection between the creek and its wetlands. No one has tried to dredge the creek or change its course. No one has logged the land.

"It's one of the most diverse collections of habitats in Florida," said George Willson of the Nature Conservancy, which is scheduled to finish appraising the land's value next month. "This is kind of a dream come true to protect something of this quality."

The creek is a magnet for endangered species, such as the wood stork. The turkey population here is so strong it was used in the 1960s to repopulate the rest of the state. So many rare swallow-tailed kites flock here that the gathering has been hailed as "a world-class natural phenomenon."

The company protected the creek because "it means a lot to us," said Charlie Lykes Jr., the third generation of the family to run the ranch. "It's a beautiful place. The land speaks for itself."

Now people are asking: Can the state do as good a job of preserving Fisheating Creek as Lykes did?

Buggies, beer bottles, loud boats

As Austin steers the buggy through the cypress heads, wet prairies and sandy scrub that Lykes owns along the creek, he flushes nearly a dozen wild turkeys, three wild boar, a couple of quail and one fleet-footed buck with a rack so magnificent Austin has to stop for a minute to catch his breath.

Austin has spent nearly 40 of his 68 years working on the creek, first as a state wildlife biologist and later as part owner of the Fisheating Creek Hunting Camp, operated on land leased from Lykes.

When he was a young state employee, Austin advocated that the state buy some of Lykes' land. But when the state sued Lykes, Austin testified for the big corporation. In the settlement, Austin will lose about 4,000 acres of the 20,000 he now leases. Still, he says he's happy to see the fight end.

The buggy rolls by a bramble nicknamed the "wait-a-minute vine" because of the way it plucks at your sleeve. Nature tries to make you tarry at Fisheating Creek. Too often, Austin says, the people you see running around the creek these days are in too big a hurry to appreciate their surroundings.

"Eighty percent of the people coming in out of the woods don't know how to see the beauty of it," he grumbles. Austin figures they're mostly there to kill the wildlife and drink heavily. After they leave he tries to pick up the trash they left behind _ empty beer bottles mostly.

"We've actually had some head-on accidents in this wilderness _ swamp buggies flying all over the place like idiots," Austin says.

Coscia, the kayaker, also sees people in a hurry. Lykes used to restrict boaters to nothing more powerful than an electric trolling motor. Since Lykes lost, he has seen motor boats roaring along at 25 mph.

"You can smell their smoke 10 minutes after they're gone," Coscia said. He blames the noisy boat traffic for making wildlife scarce on weekends.

Ken Meyer, a biologist who has studied the swallow-tailed kites here for years, laments that airboat traffic in Cowbone Marsh has driven the rare migratory birds from their favorite roost.

That's why, although Meyer supports the state buyout, "it makes me nervous."

Signs of life

To see the creek at the proper pace, Austin sets out in a 15-foot boat with a trolling motor, and turns it on only occasionally.

In the shadow of the cypress trees, the water is black as oil. A flock of white ibis feeds quietly in the shallows until a latecomer flies in honking.

Fed by the summer rains, the current murmurs against the hull of Austin's boat, pushing it along about 8 mph. Twisted cypress knees line the narrow creek like an army of silent gnomes.

The boat floats through a green patch of cupscale. Austin turns on his trolling motor to navigate a turn and the plants erupt as hundreds of startled grasshoppers leap away.

A big gator slides off the bank and sinks, leaving nothing but ripples.

"I used to wade in here and fly-fish," Austin said. "But I had the alligators back me out."

As the creek widens into a small lake the boat emerges from under the leafy canopy. Thunder rumbles and rain freckles the water's surface. The creek narrows and the trees close in again, popash and red maple dangling their limbs over the water, screening out the rain.

At one bend a live oak leans way out, limbs akimbo but roots still somehow clinging to the bank.

"Live oaks are good about seeking out the light _ that's why you'll see their branches going every which way," Austin explains. "And when they blow over they'll lay there with their roots exposed and then the roots will bark over like another trunk. They're really survivors."

Like the creek.

End of the world

Prehistoric Indians settled the creek originally, leaving behind the largest system of mounds in the state. In the 1830s the U.S. Army built a fort on the same spot, as a base for rounding up the Seminoles.

The creek once boasted a handful of rough little towns that a pioneer described as "the end of the world." Palmdale, which had a two-story hotel, is now nothing more than a few mobile homes. Tasmania dwindled to nothing but its one-room school, reincarnated as a barn. Harrisburg, a busy railhead for shipping cows to market, vanished completely.

In the 1920s, the Lykes family took over the biggest ranch in the area and their 7L brand has ruled the land ever since. Generations of Glades residents still went to the creek for baptisms and picnics _ until Lykes' padlocks went up.

Austin drives the buggy across a pasture and unlocks another gate, then turns onto a gravel road. It leads by scores of swamp hibiscus, tall as Iowa corn. Their nocturnal blooms usually fade in the heat of day, but this early in the morning they show off their pink petals.

At last the buggy approaches a half-mile row of Australian pines. When the airboats drove the swallow-tailed kites out of Cowbone Marsh, this is where they moved.

There are perhaps 5,000 swallow-tailed kites in the United States, and by late July about half of them are roosting in these pines every morning, according to Meyer, the biologist. The kites are building strength for their 5,000-mile migration to Brazil this month.

"The birds need to gain weight to make it across the ocean," Meyer said. That's why any threat to the kites at the creek is a threat to the whole species.

The kites are social birds, nesting together to fend off predators and hunting together for insects to eat. They prefer to be well away from humans, which is why they go to Fisheating Creek. The state wants to block airboats from part of the marsh, hoping the kites will move back. Until then, Meyer is recommending that the state keep humans more than a mile from the pines to protect the kites from further disturbance.

The birds have been visiting the creek for a long time. Meyer said Indian artifacts found near the creek include totems bearing the kite's distinctive form.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they'd been there for centuries," he said.

As the swamp buggy rolls closer to the pines, Austin scans the treetops. "Usually when we get in here the trees will be solid with them," he says.

Suddenly hundreds of birds are rising from the trees, circling around and around like a slow-motion cyclone. As the funnel cloud rises higher and higher into the blue sky, the kites at the top of the cyclone break off and begin flying in a figure-eight.

Their calls echo in the rising morning heat. They start to peel off, two or three at a time, spreading out over the swamps with their wings outstretched, their forked tails twitching, searching for breakfast and a good updraft.

A flock of white ibis takes off from the wetlands along Fisheating Creek. They use their curved bills to probe the mud for frogs and other delicacies.

David Austin has spent 40 of his 68 years working along Fisheating Creek, as a state biologist and, more recently, operating a hunting camp. To get around in the marshes he drives a rugged swamp buggy that started life as a 1973 Chevy Suburban.

A young deer pauses on a wet prairie near Fisheating Creek. Poachers who hunted at night with bright lights nearly wiped out the deer in the 1960s, but they have come back strong.

There are only 5,000 swallow-tailed kites in the United States, and about half roost near Cowbone Marsh during July, building strength before their long migration to Brazil. The birds prefer to glide, rather than flap their wings, and wait for the lift they get during the heat of the day to forage for food.