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CRYSTAL RIVER — It was billed as a public-input meeting, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins work on developing a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. But the public mainly had one place on their mind — Three Sisters Springs.
Soon after refuge manager Michael Lusk offered a short presentation delineating the often-confusing multilayered land of refuges, the public wanted to know when the yet-undeveloped parcel surrounding Three Sisters would be open to the public. The land is a 57-acre slice of urban waterfront with a boardwalk around the spring area for manatee viewing. The land, owned by the city of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), is being developed as the epicenter of a burgeoning ecotourism draw in the area and a place to see manatees. USFWS manages the property as part of its refuge system.
There are two conceptual plans for its development, but work has yet to begin. When it opens on a regular basis, officials expect in excess of 200,000 visitors a year to the facility.
During the past two winters, USFWS officials have opened it one weekend a month, and thousands flocked there.
Crystal River resident Lisa Moore suggested opening it as a passive nature park where residents and families can go for walks and enjoy nature.
She said there is no need for a parking lot or officials monitoring the movement of people using it.
She said while growing up, people had unsupervised recreational access to the property, “and they took care of it. I am just saying, think about it.”
One woman suggested opening the property to the public would reduce some of the vessel overcrowding in the area waterways and the bridges on which people crane to catch a glimpse of the sea cows.
Lusk said efforts are being made to speed up the opening of the property, but officials are waiting to create a public-access entrance on Cutler Spur Boulevard. Construction work to widen and improve Cutler Spur stared this week.
He said residents on King’s Bay Drive, where the current closed entrance and service road is located, are not too keen about increased volumes of people and traffic on their street.
Lusk said ultimately it is up to the city council and the water district to decide if it’s a go or not. He said plans are afoot to hire the same contractor doing the Cutler Spur project to help build the entrance on that road.
“We are trying. We really are trying to get Three Sisters open as soon as possible,” he said.
The comprehensive plan, noted Lusk, is about suggestions about the best management practices for the various refuges under the umbrella of the national wildlife refuge system. The 15-year management plan was mandated by Congress in 1997, but Crystal River has yet to develop one, Lusk said.
Local environmental consultant Mike Czerwinski suggested a plan to address what he called a “degraded habitat” for the manatees because of lack of food. Both Czerwinski and Crystal River resident Jewel Lamb noted the increase in manatees in the area has also meant dwindling natural food sources.
“The manatees need to be fed. Where is that food going to come from? Where are all these clubs when it comes to feeding the manatees?” Lamb asked.
Czerwinski suggested restorative work to the vegetation habitats to alleviate the problem.
Lamb also suggested Lusk push harder for more staffing to deal with his agency’s growing role in the area.
The process to develop a CCP is expected to last a year.
Contact Chronicle reporter A.B. Sidibe at 352-564-2925 or email@example.com.