Nineteen months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trumpeted a legal settlement that would protect manatees by limiting waterfront development and boating speeds throughout Florida.
Now, federal wildlife officials say they goofed. They told a federal judge this week that the settlement they signed with environmental groups was illegal and should be scuttled.
An attorney for the environmental groups blasted the move as "ridiculous," saying it shows that the Bush administration "wants to get out of the manatee protection business entirely."
However, if the judge agrees, that will set the stage for a courtroom showdown that could tie up waterfront development permits in 32 Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, said attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who represents the Save the Manatee Club, the Sierra Club, Audubon of Florida and more than a dozen other groups.
Before the settlement, manatee advocates had been pushing for a moratorium on all waterfront development in those 32 counties, Glitzenstein said. Should the judge approve scuttling the settlement, he said, the push for that moratorium would come back into play.
That prospect did not scare John Sprague, president of the Marine Industry Association of Florida.
"My attitude is, bring it on," he said.
Sprague and other boating advocates were elated by the federal agency's change of heart because they have contended all along that the settlement was flawed.
Ron Pritchard of Citizens for Florida's Waterways said federal wildlife officials must have "come to their senses."
The January 2001 settlement resulted from nine months of negotiations between the environmental groups, attorneys for the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as representatives of boating and home building groups.
The federal agencies agreed to tighten procedures for issuing permits for any waterfront developments that might affect manatee habitat. Wildlife officials also agreed to name areas where boating would be curtailed or even blocked by the creation of manatee sanctuaries and refuges.
At the time the settlement was signed, the wildlife service had already begun picking refuge and sanctuary candidates. Potential sites included Weedon Island, Port Sutton, Apollo Beach and the Blue Waters area of Citrus County.
But then work on the refuges and sanctuaries stalled. Manatee advocates accused the wildlife agency of violating the settlement.
Federal officials said they backed off at the request of Gov. Jeb Bush.
In May 2001, the president's brother wrote to the federal agency, requesting a delay creating any refuges or sanctuaries so the state could take the lead on creating any boating regulations.
But no matter who the governor is related to, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled two weeks ago, that's no reason for the agency to break its word.
"Whatever the political ramifications," he wrote, "such a justification cannot excuse a violation of the agreement to designate areas throughout Florida by the date established by the agreement."
The judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to explain how quickly it can now set up those sanctuaries and refuges.
In papers filed late Tuesday, Justice Department attorneys representing the federal agency said it would take six months _ but that they now believe the settlement violates the laws governing how federal rules are made.
In effect, "the FWS bargained away its discretion, binding itself to some substantive outcome in its rule-making before actually engaging in that rule-making," the Justice Department wrote.
Sullivan ordered a hearing for July 31.