Tragedy at Pith-la-choc-co
September 2000

The following article by Peter B. Gallagher and Charles Flowers is reprinted from the Seminole Tribune, August 17, 2000.

When the waters of drought-stricken Newnan's Lake receded early this summer, the naked lake bottom revealed an eerie surprise. Ancient canoes poking from the lake bed where they had lain for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. In fact, 87 canoes were flagged by archaeologists there - roughly one-fourth of all ancient canoes ever found to date in North America.

The archeological find of a lifetime! That is the way Melissa Memory, a state archaeologist, described it. Word of the find skyrocketed across the archaeological world. The most canoes ever found in one place, prior to this, was 12.

Why were so many canoes left here? It was a mystery Ms. Memory was eagerly pondering when she heard a bulldozer crashing though the delicate cypress forest along the edge of the lake and, with deep tread trenches, heading toward the area where the canoes lay, a graveyard of half-sunken sterns and bows. Some canoes were more than 30 feet in length.

She placed an emergency call to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the lead agency watchdogging this lake. So did Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller, whose phone began ringing with complainers. So did retired biologist Dale Crider, who has lived on the lake for 30 years. The DEP didn't seem very concerned, they report.

"No big deal," said Gordon Roberts, the DEP investigative chief. "Nothing to worry about."

They dialed 911. An Alachua County Sheriff's deputy showed up and approached the man in charge of the bulldozer, one L.C. "Chuck" Pinson from Santa Rosa Beach. He revealed a permit, signed by the DEP, which allowed him to go anywhere he wanted, for an entire year, to harvest deadhead logs. He chose Newnan's Lake, a kidney-shaped, 7,000-acre lake near Gainesville the Seminoles called Pith-la-choc-co.

Deadhead logging--removing submerged cut heart pine and old growth cypress left over from shoreline sawmill operations decades ago--had been banned in Florida for more than 25 years. But a quirky series of events, which began when Gov Lawton Chiles urged his Cabinet to repeal the ban (in his final Cabinet session one week before he died) and continued this past April with environmentalists and elected officials ushering the destructive industry back to the state.

Strong environmental control words were placed in the new regulations. Words like monitoring, pre-assessment, training, etc. But when Pinson paid his $6,000 license fee and cranked up his 'dozer, the system broke down.

An investigation by the Seminole Tribune has revealed:

No charges have been filed. The DEP is considering another Pinson permit to get 100 logs from another part of Pith-la-choc-co. The system is still confused: DEP's Roberts told the Tribune Pinson only wants 44 more logs. Pinson is understandlably miffed at environmentalists and the press, especially this newspaper: "I walked around feeling like I had arrows stuck in my rib cage. I was accused of several things that just didn't happen."

As the Seminole Tribune reported in our last issue, the Seminole Tribe of Florida was never notified of the find by DHR. The Tribe was given no opportunity to comment or object, or to even lend a hand. On a personal visit to the site last week, Chairman Billie gave Melissa Memory an answer to the mystery of the 87 canoes: "This was a place where long boats were made."

Pith-la-choc-co. Place of long boats.

But there are more disturbing questions. Dale Crider asks: "How did such a thing happen in the name of the state?"

Peter B. Gallagher directs Special Projects for Seminole Communications. Charles Flowers is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental issues. See the Seminole Tribune website, for more.

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