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Lasting love for sea cows started young

My fascination with the manatee started back in Missouri in 1959 when I was in the second grade. Right then I resolved to learn more about these strange cows that lived underwater.

Still, I could not know I would spend more than 30 years of my life committed to studying them and finding ways to protect them and their Florida aquatic habitats upon which they depend.

As I write this, I am struck by how much Florida has changed since the late 1960s when I first visited as a scuba diver, photographer and would-be biologist. Now, after living and working in Florida as a biologist for nearly three decades, I am both disappointed and heartened.

Disappointed in how so many places failed to balance growth with an eye toward the quality of life of its citizens and the protection of its natural resources. Heartened to return to Crystal River and Homosassa and see that what I found so alluring in the '60s still mostly exists, even if it is a bit more crowded.

Sure, it was a major mistake to neglect the sewer system and man-induced activities that have changed Kings Bay so radically from the Vallisnaria and white sand bottoms of the past to the Lyngbia-covered bay of today. Yet, much of Crystal River and parts of Kings Bay have been preserved for future generations.

I can remember a time in the late 1970s when I had doubts this was going to be possible. As a manatee researcher who had helped get the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act adopted, I was assisting the state in conducting the first manatee protection hearings in Crystal River.

After a meeting that packed an elementary school, I received more than one threat from commercial fishermen to kill manatees and me, too, if I was not careful.

Despite those threats and the gross misinformation circulated about the state's efforts to protect endangered manatees, the first manatee protection zones were adopted for Kings Bay.

Subsequently, as the state of Florida's protected species administrator, I was privileged to work cooperatively with numerous local citizens, developers, boaters, divers _ together with local, state and federal government representatives _ to develop manatee protection measures that are both good for the local economy and manatees.

As a longtime scuba diver, underwater photographer, boater, fisherman and manatee biologist, I knew all interests had to be represented if such plans were to be adopted and implemented for the long haul.

Thanks to these many caring citizens and dedicated agency representatives, the northwest subpopulation of manatees and the local economy are growing at a healthy rate.

Still, as Florida continues to grow, with some 1,000 new residents a day and more than 75-million visitors a year, it will be a great challenge to continue to balance economic development with species and habitat protection.

You only have to look at southwest Florida to see a very different picture. Development pressures in southwest Florida continue to be among the highest in the nation while the manatee population there is consistently declining.

As the state Legislature contemplates its ever weakening growth management standards, I hope it will turn to places like Crystal River, including its historic waterfronts, as proof that protecting natural and human resources can be very good for a sustainable economy _ especially when so many tourists delight in seeing what Floridians take for granted.

Although I now dread going to many places in Florida because of sprawl and the consequent loss of our beautiful and unique natural resources, I hope I never get tired of bringing my family and friends to visit Citrus County.

Patrick Rose is director of government relations for the Save the Manatee Club. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.