LAKEPORT, Fla -- At one time or another, many urban South Floridians have spent weekends canoeing, camping and fishing on scenic Fisheating Creek, located about a two-hour drive northwest of the Gold Coast. The narrow, tannic stream that flows gently south and east from Highlands County to Lake Okeechobee is a favorite among church groups, scout troops and school clubs.
For the residents of the small towns along the creek — Palmdale, Moore Haven, Lakeport, and Venus — it is more than just a recreation area; it serves as sort of an open-air community center — the site of weddings, baptisms, and birthday and graduation parties.
But Fisheating Creek also has been a lightning rod for controversy going back more than 20 years — mostly over public access to its clear waters and sandy, tree-shaded banks. Now a new legal dispute has erupted that will impact public paddling and boating access — and the ecological health of the adjacent marsh.
The environmental law group Earthjustice, based in Tallahassee, filed suit last month against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over plans to backfill a portion of the creek at Cowbone Marsh — a 1½-mile long by two-mile-wide wetland located about eight miles north of Lake Okeechobee. The plan proposed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — the creek’s landowner — calls for constructing an access road more than one mile long extending from an upland pit on adjacent Lykes Bros. property to transport about 27,000 cubic yards of sand to be put into the creek. The project would impact about 86 acres of marsh and cost between $1.5 million and $3 million.
According to legal documents and permit filings with various state and federal agencies, the backfilling is aimed at restoring the creek bed following the FWC’s deployment in 2010 of a “cookie-cutter” shredding boat to remove tussocks and deadfalls that blocked Cowbone Marsh to boat and paddlecraft access. Earthjustice attorney David Guest says it was a “channel restoration project” that FWC was required to do after it took over the creek and adjacent lands from agribusiness company Lykes Bros. in a 1999 lawsuit settlement agreement. The agreement required that the creek be maintained as “navigable.”
Lykes Bros. complained to federal and state regulators that the area was dredged — eroding the creek banks, draining the swamp and flushing muck and other debris downstream. In response, the FWC constructed six weirs made of sandbags and logs across the waterway. Lykes Bros. wasn’t satisfied, and DEP directed FWC to perform mitigation. However, the proposed backfilling project now is on hold, pending a decision from the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
Guest calls the situation “scandalous” and says the FWC project would obliterate two miles of a publicly-owned, navigable stream.
“This is a 20-year battle between Lykes Bros. and environmentalists about maintaining public access to Fisheating Creek,” Guest said. “After spending 12 years to get the public’s right to use the creek, and now that it’s restored, the state wants to spend the public’s money to undo it.”
Asked for comment, the FWC responded with a written statement: “This is a complex issue spanning several state and federal agencies and a number of unresolved legal actions. The FWC stands ready to begin the remediation process once we receive direction and clearance from the appropriate permitting agencies.”
Alva resident Robert McClenithan, 44, grew up fishing, boating and hunting on Fisheating Creek. On a trip north through Cowbone Marsh a couple weeks ago, McClenithan had to put his 16-foot john boat with 25-horsepower outboard on full plane to jump the six weirs damming the creek amid dropping water levels. Not too far upstream from the last weir, the creek came to an abrupt halt – clogged with tangles of trees and other vegetation.
“You call this navigable?” McClenithan said sarcastically.
He said the last time he traveled the length of Fisheating Creek from U.S. 27 in Palmdale south to Lake Okeechobee was in 1995 aboard a 16-foot john boat with a long-shaft “go-devil” outboard, and that was after he and several friends worked for months using chainsaws, come-alongs, hatchets, machetes and rope to clear the creek bed.
“You’re opening it up for the public so you have a place for boating and camping and bringing your family,” McClenithan said. “I’d like to travel this once more before my last days.”