Lykes Brothers pressures state to bar public’s right to use river
The state’s ill-advised scheme is to use taxpayer money to build roads through wetlands so that 50 million pounds of sand provided by agribusiness giant Lykes Bros. Inc. can be dumped into Fisheating Creek, permanently blocking the public’s navigation channel. Lykes Brothers owns most of the land on both sides of the creek.
“It’s scandalous,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “Fifteen years ago, the state won a jury verdict barring Lykes from blocking the public from boating on the creek, and now Lykes has convinced the state to spend $3 million worth of taxpayer money to fill a two-mile stretch of the navigation channel with sand.”
Today’s legal filing is the latest in 23 years of legal disputes between conservationists and Lykes Brothers over the public’s right to fish and boat on Fisheating Creek. The creek is a major tributary of Lake Okeechobee, a wild and scenic waterway which courses through prairie, cypress swamps, and marshes – -one of which is known locally as Cowbone Marsh.
The fight to maintain the public’s right to use Fisheating Creek began in 1989, when Lykes felled cypress trees across the creek’s navigation channel and posted “No Trespassing” signs claiming that the creek was not navigable. After several rounds of litigation by conservationists and the state, a jury concluded that Fisheating Creek is navigable, effectively ordering Lykes to stop blocking boaters from using the creek. Much of the dispute concerned whether there was an historic, navigable channel in the cypress swamps and marshes formerly used by boaters.
In its filing today in the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, Earthjustice is representing Save Our Creeks and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. Those two groups were plaintiffs in the lengthy legal battle with Lykes that ended with a landmark victory for boaters’ rights in Florida.
The current controversy resulted when Lykes claimed that the state was improperly handling a marsh channel restoration project. After intense lobbying by Lykes, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reversed itself and announced the plan to use $3 million in taxpayer money to build roads and “staging areas” across the marsh so that several hundred dump trucks can transport sand – supplied by Lykes – into the creek bed.
“The state’s plan is ridiculous,” said Rhonda Roff of Save Our Creeks. “Are they seriously thinking that the public will buy their argument that the best way to protect this wild and scenic waterway is to fill it in with 50 million pounds of sand?”
“We think this is a political giveaway to the Lykes Brothers and a real snub to the public,” Roff said. “Maybe they didn’t think anyone was paying attention. The fact is, people have a legal right to use this waterway.”
A short video of the waterway, taken by Earthjustice on August 18, 2012 is available here.