Editorial: Find other ways to make state parks pay (and find state leaders with backbones) | Map

Editorial: Find other ways to make state parks pay (and find state leaders with backbones) | Map

Gov. Rick Scott seems bound and determined to bring moneymaking ventures to Florida’s state parks — despite a chorus of opposition from environmentalists, park users, former park administrators and even one or two members of the state Cabinet.

Scott has entertained hunting, logging and agricultural uses inside state park boundaries, even though such uses would be incompatible with the park system’s historical mission.

A parallel concern, with broader implications, is the fact that Scott continues to surround himself with compliant agency heads who seem unwilling to challenge the governor’s imperatives.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks, is headed by Jon Steverson, a career bureaucrat with water management district experience.

At Steverson’s Cabinet confirmation hearing in August, state Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam suggested Steverson drop the proposal to allow hunting in state parks. Attorney General Pam Bondi wanted to interview other candidates than Steverson, but she later backed off.

Three months after Steverson was named head of DEP, he hired Gary Clark, who has almost no environmental-management experience at the state level. However, Clark, 47, is well-versed in operating commercial hunting ventures.

Hailing from Chipley in the Florida Panhandle, Clark runs what has been described as “Northwest Florida’s premier bobwhite quail hunting preserve,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. He is co-owner of Hard Labor Creek Shooting Sports Inc., a 2,600 acre pine plantation where he oversees land management and hunting operations.

Clark won’t face contentious confirmation hearings like his boss, but he does fit the governor’s mold. Scott has a habit of hiring state leaders based on political expediency rather than expertise. (Stay tuned: The governor faces possibly contentious hearings for his hand-picked leader of the state’s health care administration agency and a new state surgeon general.)

Steverson’s tenure has been marked by a lack of public accountability. This Editorial Board wrote him an open letter in January that offered help in familiarizing him with the challenges facing our Indian River Lagoon.

We invited Steverson to the Treasure Coast to tour the lagoon and its tributaries and to meet with our board to discuss priorities.

We have yet to hear from him.

In recent weeks, Steverson has clarified his long-term intentions to make state parks financially “robust.” He now advocates allowing commercial uses only in the larger inland parks, which are less popular with visitors.

Steverson also refined his thoughts about hunting. Rather than considering it in all 161 parks, as he’d originally suggested, Steverson made clear in mid-November that he’s looking at the system’s largest parks — those greater than 20,000 acres.

Only the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Indian River County fits that bill on the Treasure Coast.

Why aren’t more state leaders defending our parks from this assault?

Sen. Joe Negron, in particular, has the potential to influence state policy. But the rising Florida Senate president, a Republican from Stuart, did not respond to our repeated requests for his position on the hunting proposal.

Here’s an idea, Mr. Steverson: If you want to increase revenues, why not boost entrance fees at the more popular coastal parks by a buck or two a head? Most park fees are very low, typically between $2 and $8 admission. Given the popularity of the parks system with millions of Floridians, we feel users would gladly pay a small premium to keep the parks the way they were intended: as pristine reminders of the original Florida.

Twenty-seven million people visited state parks last year. One or two dollars extra per head would make a lot more financial sense than allowing a few hunters into parks over a handful of weekends a year to hunt for feral hogs — and losing revenue from all those visitors who’d have to be excluded during those times.

As we’ve argued before, Floridians love their state parks just the way they are: wild, free and not governed by the almighty dollar.

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