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Jeb Bush said he loved manatees, but preferred boaters, antitax stance as governor

As a presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hasn't said much about the environmental issues facing America. He has waffled on climate change and supported approval of the Keystone pipeline and drilling in the arctic, and that has been about it.

But when he was a gubernatorial candidate in 1998, he took pains to show his concern about the environment — particularly about one of the state's signature animals, the manatee. He even helped SeaWorld release a pair of rehabilitated manatees, one of them named "Little Jeb." After he was elected, during a 2000 Cabinet meeting he made his interest in manatees even plainer.

"There's an endangered species that's close to being extinct in Florida waters, and I don't want to be part of that," Bush announced. "It's my favorite mammal."

Yet when Bush had a chance to solve one of the biggest problems in manatee protection, he backed off, deferring instead to is own conservative ideology.

What happened with Bush and manatees remains one of the great what-ifs of Florida environmental history and provides a window into how he might deal with similar situations as president.

Bush took office in January 1999 at a crucial moment for manatee protection. The Save the Manatee Club and other environmental groups had spent years building a coalition that could take both the state and federal government to court. They based their lawsuits on the rising death toll of manatees clobbered by boats and the continuing loss of habitat to waterfront development.

The groups were finally ready to take their first legal step toward suing in May 1999, but Save the Manatee Club co-founder Jimmy Buffett wanted to hold off. He wanted to personally inform Bush about what was being planned, and emphasize that this was the fault of the previous, Democratic administration.

Their meeting did not go as planned.

For about 30 minutes, Bush raved about how much he loved manatees, recalled Save the Manatee Club executive director Pat Rose. Finally, Rose and Buffett said they were there to talk about a lawsuit. Bush shouted, "Lawsuit!" and leaped to his feet, clearly angry.

The governor "went from a big smile and very cordial to where he looked like he'd just been blindsided," Rose recalled last week.

Afterward, Buffett tried to put the best face on the meeting for reporters, calling Bush "charming." Later, one of Bush's aides cornered the organization's co-chairman, Fran Stallings, and chewed him out: "How dare you do something like this? This is an embarrassment to the governor! This is the governor's favorite animal!"

Undeterred, the Save the Manatee Club and its coalition filed two suits on Jan. 13, 2000 — one against the federal government, the other against Florida. While the legal action got rolling, 800 federal permits for new boat slips across Florida were put on hold. Bush took steps to deal with the situation.

"There's an endangered species that's close to being extinct in Florida waters, and I don't want to be part of that," Bush announced at a July 2000 Cabinet meeting, exaggerating the peril somewhat. "It's my favorite mammal."

A month later, he unveiled a multistep process to deal with the rising number of manatee deaths and free up the dock permits. One step called for Bush himself to record public-service announcements urging boaters to slow down. Another — the centerpiece of the plan — scheduled a "manatee summit" to bring all the parties together to work out their differences.

"No other animal is as endearing a symbol of our state as the gentle manatee," Bush said at the time.

The October 2000 summit convened in a large hotel ballroom in Tallahassee with 30 participants ranging from environmental groups to the Association of Florida Community Developers and the Marine Industries Association of Florida. They sat in silence as a biologist showed them slides of slaughtered manatees, their hides slashed by propellers "like a hard-boiled egg put through a slicer," as the St. Petersburg Times reported the next day.

Bush himself gave a short speech about the need to help the defenseless creatures.

"I love the manatee," he told the group. "I think this docile, beautiful animal should be protected." Then, before the discussion started, he ducked out to attend to other business.

The summit could have devolved into name-calling chaos. Instead, the participants found common ground, agreeing the state needed to boost enforcement of boat speed zones.

Someone from the boating industry suggested assessing a $10 fee on each new boat registration. That would raise enough money to hire 100 new wildlife officers to patrol. Everyone at the summit agreed that was a great idea.

But when Bush heard about the proposal, he rejected it.

"It smells like a tax," he said.

The son of the president notorious for saying "Read my lips — no new taxes!" would rather cut a tax than promote one. Bush's dislike of taxes proved stronger than his love for manatees.

Bush's rejection of what summit participants recommended marked one of the great missed opportunities for Florida's manatees, Rose said.

A second summit to build on the first had been scheduled. But because Bush pulled the plug on the boater fee, that was scrubbed. The lawsuits proceeded, forcing state and federal agencies to agree to set up new speed zones and refuges — something the state's boaters intensely disliked.

By 2002, Bush, running for re-election, changed sides. At the urging of the state's boating industry, he contacted an official in his brother's administration, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, to get her to back off of providing protections for manatees that the settlement required.

"Recognizing the frustration and heavy burden on Florida boaters," Bush said in a statement then. " … I appealed to Gale Norton … to delay any announcement and possibly forgo implementation of federally designated refuges and sanctuaries." Delaying the federal action "would enable the state to consider implementation of its own protective measures."

"Gov. Bush very much wanted the state to take the lead," recalled Craig Manson, Norton's assistant secretary.

Norton held off doing anything until after Bush was re-elected, even as a federal judge twice threatened to find her in contempt of court. Meanwhile, Manson said, Bush's appointees to the state wildlife commission squandered their opportunity to take the lead on manatee protection. In the end, Norton had to do what the judge said, which ticked off Bush. But there was nothing he could do about it.

That year, boaters in Florida killed 95 manatees, a record. In his eight years in office, 650 manatees died after being hit by speeding boats. Even today, Florida's wildlife agency struggles to put enough officers on the water to enforce the speed zones designed to protect them.

However a Bush campaign spokeswoman contended the former governor did everything he could to help both the environment and the taxpayers.

"Jeb Bush didn't raise boater taxes, forced the local passage of manatee protection plans, increased law enforcement on water, held a manatee summit to bring folks together, and today we have 6,000 manatees," said press secretary Kristy Campbell, noting that that's "the most manatees since the aerial surveys began in 1991."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.