Friday, May 30, 1986
Bureaucracy, not river bottom, now holds down 'Maple Leaf'

    If the federal government had a heart or a mind, it would say, "Salvage the Maple Leaf and we'll be interested in what you discover."

    But, unfortunately, a bureaucracy doesn't react in the same way that any person of average discernment would.

    It is layered around with laws and rules and the age-old tendency of any bureaucracy to seek refuge in a "no," even when a "yes" is indicated, because the "no" is usually the safest course.

    Laws and precedents and refinements and rulings are in books that may be behind locked doors on shelves so high that ladders are needed to reach them and, even when they become available are couched in unfamiliar terms like nisi and bonum or are obscured in meaning by archaic terms or hairsplitting legal language or later pronouncements that make them void.

    The Maple Leaf a side-wheel steamer sunk by a Confederate mine off Mandarin Point in the St. Johns River, is mired in the bureaucracy and the regulations much more deeply than it is encased in the mud at the river's bottom.

    A Jacksonville group, headed by Dr. Keith Holland, a dentist, has gone to painstaking and expensive lengths to trace the boat's history and prepare for its salvage. However, the federal government, which hasn't done anything about the wreck in more than a hundred years since the last contract was given to blow away the upper portion that was considered a danger to navigation, has not been willing to sign away its rights to the vessel and let the salvage proceed.

    The government has wiped the wreckage off its navigation charts but still puts up obstacles to this well-planned and well-intentioned salvage attempt.

    If, at some point, the issue gets into the hands of a human being who has the leeway to make a clear decision rather than remaining in the folds of a vast amorphous mass of paperwork and bureaucracy, the venture will probably get not only approval but a blessing.

    If, say, the proposition could have been put to President Abraham Lincoln, whose assassination took place a year and two weeks after the Palatka-to-Jacksonville-bound vessel was sunk, he'd say, "Go ahead and Godspeed!"

    He'd say that the folks in Jacksonville have a right to the precious little bit of their rich history that is available to be preserved and that he was thankful there were Americans around still willing to risk time, money and effort on such a venture. He'd be proud of them and he'd be curious, like the rest of us, to see what they'd bring up from those murky waters.

    At least we think that's what he'd say, interspersed with a story or two about "a fellow who...".

    If it is possible for the federal government to shed those layers of stultifying legalisms and give a common-sense answer to the salvage request, that answer will probably not merely be "yes," but "yes thanks."