Jono Miller: DEP still trying to commercialize state parks

Jono Miller: DEP still trying to commercialize state parks

Herald-Tribune readers awoke on Christmas to find a present headlining the local section: a news story announcing that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had decided it has no plans to put cows in Myakka River State Park. The alarmingly qualified (“at this time”) statement came with no explanation regarding the agency’s 180-degree pivot.

It was the Herald-Tribune that broke this story and DEP’s intentions were only revealed after a former DEP employee filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request. In the eight months it took to subdue the radical proposal, no individual at DEP ever admitted it was his or her idea, and while the agency tried to assert that the idea originated at the local level, it was clear the idea originated somewhere near the top in Tallahassee. After finally thwarting this nonsensical scheme to add 315 cows to a globally imperiled habitat that lacked any improved pasture, it is sad commentary that maintaining the status quo is viewed as a significant victory.

Despite this initial victory regarding cows in Myakka, many former DEP employees (including more than 40 former park managers) and environmentalists believe that DEP still intends to open state parks to commercial activities such as cattle grazing, hunting, and sustained yield forestry. How do we draw that conclusion?

First, the announcement that cows are not currently being considered for Myakka did not bring with it a repudiation of Tallahassee’s proposal for commercial cattle operations in Paynes Prairie State Park.

Secondly, last year there was a Florida House bill to open state lands to “low impact agriculture.” State Sen. Thad Altman was able to remove state parks from the scope of the Senate companion bill, a move that restricted the mandate for low-impact agriculture to state forests, wildlife management areas and other state lands. But the state park exemption was subsequently removed in another committee by the Senate sponsor, Alan Hays, at DEP’s request, even though DEP’s own adopted Standard Resource Management Procedures clearly state that the Division of Recreation and Parks that manages state park lands “considers the occurrence of cattle on them to be incompatible with its basic land management objectives.”

Thus DEP leadership was attempting to use the Legislature to open the door to activities that don’t enhance the experiences of park visitors (they clearly would diminish them) but rather create opportunities for private money-making operations inside the parks — operations unrelated to the mission of the state parks and contrary to DEP’s adopted protocols.

It’s not as though Sarasota has been hostile to cattle grazing. The county already has cattle leases on 2,868 acres of protected public land and another 17,045 acres of private ranchland have conservation easements.

In addition to cows, DEP leadership has been promoting recreational hunting and timber operations in our state parks. You may have read about the questionable contract awarded to assess all state parks for forestry operations, a sketchy process that led to two DEP resignations.

The hunting proposals are even harder to understand — the number of Florida hunters is basically flat, while the numbers of residents and tourists that want to see our spectacular wildlife is 10 times greater and keeps growing. Sarasota County’s odd lurch toward allowing hunting in our county parks complicates the issue, but the facts are similar — county surveys show very modest demand for additional hunting opportunities, while there is strong interest in non-consumptive nature-based recreation. […]