Gov. Rick Scott’s bottom-line focus on state government is stirring environmentalists across Florida wary of the upcoming legislative session and another wave of efforts to make state parks help pay for themselves.
Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection chief, Jon Steverson, sparked a firestorm of opposition earlier this year by discussing park management plans that could include expanding hunting, grazing and logging activities at some of Florida’s 174 state parks.
Thousands of petition signatures emerged from those against the idea, along with a call for Steverson’s ouster.
But Steverson said he stands by the approach, and he has a supporter in state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, who sponsored legislation in last spring’s session that could have opened parks and other conservation lands to “low-impact agriculture.”
“Do I think it would be good if we could make some more money off parks, and make them a little more self-sustaining? Sure,” Caldwell said.
“But we’re not talking about doing this at a park with a lake and picnic tables. Some parks are huge and this kind of activity may be just good land management,” he said.
Caldwell, who said he will bring back the legislation for the session opening Jan. 12, said the opposition has been “hyperbolic.”
“The narrative here really has been hijacked. There’s a political element in all this,” he said.
But those fighting the Scott administration’s plans don’t see it that way. They don’t want him commercializing state parks honored three times in recent years as the nation’s best.
Environmentalists and other opponents say they are frustrated with the Republican governor’s focus on squeezing dollars out of everything and with his putting under the microscope those areas of state government that don’t generate big revenue.
“This reveals a lack of understanding about the state park system that is really discouraging,” said Albert Gregory, who retired in 2014 after 35 years with DEP, mostly as the parks planning chief.
“It has been carefully planned and developed over 80 years to provide a diverse culture of natural resources,” Gregory said. “They’ve been set aside for perpetual public use and enjoyment; not to just be turned over to someone who can use them commercially and we can make a buck on it.”
Florida’s parks, trails and historic sites span close to 800,000 acres, 100 miles of beaches and more than 1,500 miles of multi-use trails. They include urban beaches, natural springs and rural preserves and range from the less-than-one-acre Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park in Nassau County to the 77,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Collier County […]