CRYSTAL RIVER — In the nearly three years since Three Sisters Springs was acquired by the public, people have had only a handful of opportunities to visit the 57-acre site.
Residents want that to change.
At the same time, they worry about the chaos and congestion in the waters that border the coastal property in Citrus County — waters that are an important gathering spot for endangered manatees seeking warm water on cold winter days.
These and other issues related to manatees and manatee observers who frequent the waters in and around the nearby Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge need to be resolved, Michael Lusk told a crowd of about 80 residents and businesspeople Tuesday evening.
Lusk, the refuge's manager, led a public session to gather ideas on how the refuge should be managed for the next 15 years. The meeting was the first step in the development of the refuge's first comprehensive conservation plan.
Lusk explained the complex job of managing the refuge and other property under its control, including Three Sisters.
"This is the only place that I know of that we have a tourism industry built around getting up close and personal with an endangered species, much less a protected marine mammal,'' he said. "This is a very unique place, and so, as a result, we have very unique regulatory needs here.''
Participants talked about the need for more monitoring and study, staffing levels at the refuge, habitat restoration and limiting visitors. Others urged Lusk to get Three Sisters opened for the community.
Since the only way to see a manatee at the refuge is by boat, some of the congestion on the water could be lessened by opening the Three Sisters property, one resident suggested. Another asked for the public simply to have access, without any development or supervision. The land surrounding the springs has been accessible only during special events such as the Florida Manatee Festival.
"I hear this over and over again, to open it,'' Lusk said. "But it's not that simple.''
The management plan requires building a new entrance before opening the property, but Lusk has no plan or money to build it.
That riled several residents, including waterfront homeowner Jewel Lamb. "So the reason you're not open is because you're broke," Lamb said.'
Lusk said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Three Sisters Springs, never agreed formally to do anything if money was not available.
Mike Birns, a local tour operator, urged Lusk to consider using mooring balls to organize the congestion from tour boats at the mouth of Three Sisters Springs.
"I totally agree it's a mess out there … but I can't just put in a mooring field because it's navigable waters of the state of Florida,'' Lusk said. "Just so you know … how complicated something so simple may be.''
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Lusk urged more people to comment by the April 2 deadline to aid in developing a good management plan.
"This is the largest natural congregation of manatees in a natural area anywhere in the world — in the entire world,'' Lusk said. "This makes it a very unique place. As a result, we need everybody to try to figure this out.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.