(Photo: Democrat files) Grand ideas to turn Florida’s state parks into money-makers have come and gone over the years. Water parks, golf courses, swank hotels — such development visions have been floated, then abandoned after public outcry.But a current, more low-key push led by the Department of Environmental Protection’s new Secretary Jon Steverson to allow logging, cattle grazing and hunting on park lands, has longtime park advocates really worried.
Dozens of former DEP and Florida Park Service officials who spent decades-long careers tending the state’s roughly 800,000 acres of state-park lands have publicly expressed their opposition to Steverson’s desire to make the system financially self-sustaining by embracing a “multiple use” approach in order to boost revenue.
The change, they say, is the most significant in the park system’s 80-year history and undermines the single reason the parks were created and have flourished — to provide outdoor recreation and to protect natural and cultural resources.
“What’s different about this effort is that it’s challenging the original purpose of state parks,” said Phillip Werndli, who worked for 18 years as the park’s statewide volunteer coordinator and retired last year as assistant bureau chief over natural and cultural resources.
“What’s going on here is a fundamental philosophical discussion about changing the direction and the purpose of at least portions of the state parks,” he said. “I’m very concerned.”
Steverson has been taken aback by the immediate reaction to and condemnation of his idea. He says his approach is neither new nor radical.
“I would not say what I’m talking about is a drastic shift,” he said. “I’m surprised by the people who are taking very small pieces of information and twisting it into something that it’s simply not.”
The park system already generates revenue that pays for 71 percent of its operating cost, and limited timbering, grazing and hunting already is allowed in some of the Florida Park Service’s 171 parks, Steverson said. He stressed park managers would still be in charge, but private sector contractors could be employed for specific tasks.
“I’m not looking at turning the park system into a profit center. What I’m looking at is better land management,” he said. “And if those land management activities do yield financial benefit for us … I don’t understand why that’s a bad thing. I understand the parks give people something money can’t buy, but it takes money to run them.”
A park-by-park analysis is being undertaken to look for more revenue opportunities and to see them implemented faster. Ideally, he’d like to find ways to bring in an additional $20 million and cover the parks’ total budget.
While the state parks, which were visited by an all-time high 27 million people last year, have devoted supporters, Steverson said fighting for money for them in the competitive environment at the Capitol is tough.
“I don’t want to have to depend on (the Legislature) for funding,” he said. “When you have education and health care clamoring for dollars, I want to be able to handle our business and take care of our own situation.”
Despite the controversy and a lack of formal public input into the overall policy shift, DEP is pushing ahead. Earlier this month, the agency signed a contract with a private consultant to conduct a timber management, inventory and planning pilot project on 22,000 acres on the Cross Florida Greenway, located in Marion, Levy, Citrus and Putnam counties.
Albert Gregory, a three-decade state park system employee and chief planner who retired last year, says DEP’s lack of transparency is another real concern. News that the agency was looking at expanding logging, grazing and hunting to generate more money was only made public earlier this summer after public records requests flushed out a draft “Optimized Land Management and Cost Recovery” plan being developed by DEP staff.
Since then, Gregory said DEP has been unclear about its intentions and has kept the public, for whom the parks exist, in the dark.
“At this point I don’t know what they want to do. I just wish they would tell the people the truth about it,” he said. “Parks don’t need this kind of controversy. And I can’t imagine it is doing any good for DEP either.”
Critics of the new management approach say DEP is exaggerating the prevalence of existing non-traditional uses, and the shift will degrade the current park experience and undermine public support. They point out a third of the park’s workforce are volunteers and that Florida has 5 million acres of forest and wildlife management land for hunting and other uses they say don’t belong in designated state parks.
“This is the premier state park system in the United States,” said Jim Stevenson, a former chief naturalist for Florida’s state parks and a retired senior biologist. “If there was ever a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ this is a prime example.”
The agency also recently has changed its public-meeting format to an open-house approach, rather than a stand-up hearing, which Gregory and others say serves to stifle input.
“It doesn’t take a public administration expert to figure out what they’re trying to do is to limit public criticism of the plan,” Gregory said. “The fundamental question is what we want state parks to be, and I think it’s time for a good healthy public discussion about it.”
Steverson does not plan a hearing on the overall effort to generate more money from additional land management practices, but said the public will have plenty of opportunities to have its say as individual park management plans come up for review. He’ll consider opposing views.
“I will sit down with anybody and have a conversation with them,” he said.
Have your say
The public can stay up to date on state park Unit Management Plan updates and public hearings on DEP’s website at http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/planning/
Sign up to receive email notifications about hearings and workshops on the DEP homepage (dep.state.fl.us) by providing an email address on the left side and selecting “Recreation and Parks — hearings, meetings and workshops” on the checklist