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Dam opponents see nod, hope for a word

State officials keep a demolition permit alive for Kirkpatrick Dam. Environmentalists cling to hope as Gov. Bush studies pros and cons.

The Bush administration quietly took its first step Monday toward tearing down a dam that has blocked the Ocklawaha River for more than 30 years.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said the move does not signal Bush will continue the fight begun by Gov. Lawton Chiles to demolish the controversial dam and eliminate the Rodman Reservoir.

"The governor has not made his decision yet," said Bush's press secretary, Liz Hirst. "He is still looking forward to getting more details."

To the environmental groups that have been pushing for decades to tear down the dam, the fact that Bush's staff has taken one step toward ripping out the 7,200-foot-long dam offers a ray of hope.

"I am cautiously optimistic," said David White of Florida Defenders of the Environment.

An aide to state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, the Gainesville Republican who has fought so hard to keep the dam that it was named for him, expressed disappointment in the step taken by the state Monday. But aide Mike Murtha said dam supporters repeatedly thwarted Chiles, a Democrat, and they would not shrink from taking on Bush, a Republican.

"We've gone against the most popular governor in Florida history _ you think we're afraid of anything?" Murtha asked.

The step state officials took Monday was a small but significant one involving a permit.

While Chiles was governor, the state Department of Environmental Protection applied for a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District to dismantle the dam. The water board asked for more information to complete the permit.

The DEP's application would have expired Monday. Supporters of the dam, who like the fishing provided by the stump-filled reservoir, had called last week for Bush to let the permit expire. Meanwhile 43 conservation groups sent Bush a letter urging him to continue Chiles' battle to tear down the dam.

Instead of letting the permit expire, DEP filed the additional information Monday. DEP Secretary David Struhs was out of town and unavailable to comment on why his agency took that step if Bush had made no decision.

The water board has 30 days to determine whether the DEP application is complete. If it is, then the water board will have 90 days to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Murtha said Kirkpatrick is determined to pass a law this year that would require that Rodman Reservoir remain the mecca for bass anglers it is now. Because of term limits, the legislative session that begins in March will mark his last chance to permanently protect Kirkpatrick Dam.

The dam was intended to be a link in the Cross Florida Barge Canal, allowing commerce to slice across Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The dam impounded 16 miles of the 80-mile river, flooding more than 9,000 acres, part of which belonged to the Ocala National Forest.

President Richard Nixon halted further construction of the canal because of environmental concerns. In 1990, the governor's father, President George Bush, signed legislation that formally ended the canal project and handed the land back to Florida.

Environmental groups have been trying for three decades to tear down the dam to restore the once-wild Ocklawaha. Among other things, they and federal officials blame the dam's water control structures for the deaths of 10 endangered manatees.

The state's permit to occupy the federally owned forest land expired Jan. 1. If the state wants to renew it, federal officials say the state will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars installing equipment to keep manatees out.