Byline: MATT GALNOR, The Times-Union
One theme continues to rise to the surface in a volatile turf war playing out on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville: protection.
The federal government has drafted new speed zones to slow down boaters in an effort to protect manatees, the sloth-like endangered mammals that lumber down the river's vegetated banks.
State and local officials are trying compromise with the feds on additional speed zones, armed with a decade's worth of data they say show Jacksonville's manatee protection plan is working. Jacksonville is even threatening to sue the federal government -- a potentially ugly but necessary step, leaders say -- when it comes to protecting the city's economy and way of life.
Protecting guys like Al Thomas, who sells ski boats that he says will be extinct on much of the river as these new federal laws take hold.
Protecting homeowners like Rick Lucas, who bought on the river to shrimp, fish, ski and tube with family and friends. He said he hasn't seen a manatee much past his dock in 16 years.
And Jacksonville's plan protects the commercial tugboats, the families who boat to The Jacksonville Landing, the teenagers on personal watercraft, the businesses that have invested in marinas, and on and on down the line, City Councilwoman Lynette Self said.
"It's stealing the river from the citizenry, and I think it's criminal," Councilman Lake Ray said.
The federal regulations technically took effect last month but won't be enforced until signs are actually posted in the river. They expand the buffer zones along shorelines and, in one area, make the whole river a slow-speed zone except for a 500-foot wide channel that will have a 25 mph limit.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, however, hasn't yet agreed to enforce the federal regulation. Discussions are still ongoing about just how much the state will enforce.
City and state leaders say the most egregious of the new restrictions regulate a winding, 10.4-mile stretch of river that runs from downtown north almost to Reddie Point. Except for the federally marked channel on the far western side near commercial docks, a slow-speed zone will encompass the entire area.
That stretch, though, is made up of deeper water with little vegetation. It's an area manatees aren't likely to frequent, said Quinton White, a biologist who studies manatees and is Jacksonville University's dean of arts and sciences.
Not so, contends Dave Hankla, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Jacksonville office.
"If we weren't protecting manatees," he said of changing speed zones, "we wouldn't be doing it."
While talks are ongoing and the city holds out hope it can make only a few minor tweaks to its plan -- not the sweeping overhauls the federal government has drafted -- Jacksonville is also bracing itself for the worst.
City attorneys are diligently preparing their suit, ready to file in the next week if needed, said Brad Thoburn, Jacksonville's director of state and federal affairs.
"The science does not in any way indicate it's going to provide any enhanced protection," Thoburn said. "It's just more restrictive on boaters."
The federal government has shown recent flexibility. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to scrap its Pansy Bayou Manatee Refuge in Sarasota County and the Cocoa Beach Manatee Refuge in Brevard County, opting instead to use state protection plans.
The city and state will likely have to band together and beef up the local plan to broker a similar deal here, or the feds aren't likely to budge.
"I don't think it's realistic to think we're just going to take ours off the books and go back to the way things were six months ago," Hankla said.
WHO KNOWS BEST?
The river's regulatory landscape is a constant tug-of-war pitting Jacksonville leaders citing their local knowledge and research against the federal government and environmental groups looking for more manatee protection. …