Nugent aims to put brakes on manatee rule

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Congressman pushes to strip funding to enforce rule

By Mike Wright

U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent is asking Congress to withhold funding for a proposed manatee-protection rule involving Crystal River and King’s Bay, effectively stopping the rule before it starts.

Nugent, R-Brooksville, filed an amendment to the Department of the Interior’s appropriations that says “none of the funds” from the department’s budget may be used to implement the proposed manatee refuge rule.
Nugent said Wednesday the amendment is aimed at giving local residents and officials more time to meet with federal officials before the rule takes place.
“My goal here is to calm things down,” Nugent said. “Let’s get input from people in that area. The end game is, if the same rule comes out after input from folks, so be it. At least people will feel they had an opportunity to modify or change the rule.”
Nugent said he expects the U.S. House of Representatives to vote on the amendment in the next day or two.
The proposed rule includes several manatee protections, including one that would mandate slow speeds in King’s Bay year-round, removing a 35 mph “sport zone” that now exists in the summer. Officials say the slow speeds are necessary to protect manatees from being hit by fast boats.
Federal officials announced the rule in late June and have had one public hearing July 7, at which more than 200 people showed up to register an opinion. The government says it will continue to accept public comment until mid-August.
County commissioners and Crystal River City Council members have passed resolutions opposing the year-round slow speed in King’s Bay.
Nugent said he doesn’t have an opinion on whether the proposed rule makes sense or not. He said public opinion seems evenly divided, but his biggest concern is the lack of public involvement in creating the rule.
Federal officials worked on the rule for months and would not speak a word about it, citing rules that prohibited them from discussing the proposal until it was published in the Federal Registry.
Nugent said that is not the way to create a rule that has such far-ranging impact.
“What I’m hearing is people want to be heard on it,” he said. “The federal government seems to work that way: We’ll let you have input after we design the rule. In the sense of fairness, I don’t see that as the way to do it. You have the discussions, and then make a decision.”
Nugent said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could still enact emergency rules to protect manatees during cold winter months as it did last winter.
He said he did not consult with federal wildlife officials before offering the no-funding amendment, other than to tell them it was coming.
“They didn’t talk to me and ask me about it,” Nugent said, referring to the manatee rule. “They wouldn’t even tell me about it until after it dropped.”
Chronicle reporter Mike Wright can be reached at (352) 563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.