An administrative judge today ruled in favor of citizens groups—and against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection—in a landmark case to preserve the public’s boating access to one of South Florida’s wildest waterways, Fisheating Creek in Glades County.
A Division of Administrative Hearings Judge in Tallahassee ruled that the Florida DEP cannot block off the creek’s navigation channel. Earthjustice represents Save Our Creeks and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, which on Oct. 2 challenged the DEP’s environmental permit.
The DEP planned to use $3 million in taxpayer money to build roads through wetlands so that 3,300 dump-truck loads of sand provided by agribusiness giant Lykes Bros. Inc. could be dumped into a two-mile-stretch of Fisheating Creek, permanently blocking the public’s navigation channel. Lykes Brothers owns most of the land on both sides of the creek.
“Lykes Brothers has been using its political heft for years to try to keep the public from boating and fishing on the creek, and today we won,” said Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe. “The plan to fill a two-mile section of a stream with sand was just nuts. Florida boaters and sportsmen should not have to deal with the state trying to block them from the public waters we all have a right to use.”
The case decided today 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. It is a wild and scenic waterway which courses through prairie, cypress swamps, and marshes.
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.
The current legal battle started last fall, when Lykes claimed that the state was improperly handling a marsh channel restoration project. After intense lobbying by Lykes, the Florida DEP announced its plan to use $3 million in taxpayer money to build roads and “staging areas” across the marsh so that 3,300 dump trucks could transport sand—supplied by Lykes—into the creek bed.
Watch a short video of the waterway, taken by Earthjustice on August 18, 2012: