ISLAMORADA -- The latest version of the Everglades National Park General Management Plan would provide greater access for Florida Bay anglers and boaters than the widely criticized proposal that the National Park Service put forward a year ago.
"We made it responsive in terms of access while also protecting the shallow portions of the bay," Principal Everglades National Park Planner Fred Herling said in an interview Monday.
The Park Service doesn't plan to formally release the new proposal until the summer, Herling said. But approximately 30 anglers, guides and conservationists were given a sneak peak at a private meeting last Friday at the Islander Resort's Florida Keys Conference Center.
Primarily, the invitees were people who park officials have worked with directly over the past several months in order to gain more hands-on knowledge of the many channels that pass through shallow, 850-square-mile Florida Bay.
"I liked [among] the changes that they did provide more thoughtful access," Islamorada-based backcountry angler Tad Burke said.
Indeed, according to Herling, the latest plan would leave open some three dozen of Florida Bay's channels that the Park Service had previously marked for closure. Doing so would mean that 87 percent of the pole/troll zones would lie within a half mile of a navigable channel, up from 77 percent in last year's plan.
The Park Service found itself on the defensive in the Upper Keys last spring after proposing that 131,000 acres, or nearly a third of Florida Bay, be made off limits to combustion engine use.
The proposal was one of many salvos in what is now an 11-year process to develop a management plan to guide park governance for the next two decades.
The plan was designed to protect flats and seagrass beds from boat groundings and propeller scars. But guides and business organizations chafed that it would be devastating to the local flats fishing industry and, therefore, to the Upper Keys economy at large.
Under the latest proposal, Herling said, some 30,000 less acres would be designated as pole/troll only areas. Most of that space, 25,000 acres in all, would instead be pole/troll/idle speed zones. The change, which guides lobbied for last year, would allow boaters to leave their combustion engines in the water in those areas if the depth is sufficient.
In addition, the new plan would do away with a proposed paddler-only zone in northeast Florida Bay's 2,100-acre Long Sound, Herling said. Instead, paddlers would gain access to the 4,000-acre Joe Bay, on the edge of the Florida mainland. Joe Bay has been entirely closed to the public since 1980 as part of a designated crocodile sanctuary.
Fishing guides like Burke aren't the only ones with positive words about the new proposal.
Audubon of Florida ecologist Pete Frezza was one of just a few Upper Keys residents to speak publicly in favor of the 2013 proposal. On Monday, he said he's happy with the 2014 version as well.
"They made it a little more access friendly," he said. "But the bottom line of protecting that shallow-water habitat, we've kept intact."