Gainesville Sun Editorial
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2015 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 27, 2015 at 10:50 p.m.
As chief naturalist for the Florida Park Service, Jim Stevenson chaired a committee that wrote the management plan for Paynes Prairie when it was bought by the state.
Now retired, Stevenson recently told The Sun, the group voted to remove cattle and fences from the former ranch as it made the transition to being the state’s first preserve.
“That’s been in play for 47 years and everything has been fine until the DEP secretary decided that he wants cows on state parks,” he said.
Stevenson was referring to DEP Interim Secretary Jon Steverson, who is pushing for state parks to pay for themselves. That means opening them up to cattle grazing, timber harvesting and other revenue-generating uses.
A proposal to allow cattle grazing in Myakka River State Park near Sarasota was the first sign that the plans are getting serious. Now that Alachua County’s biggest outdoor attraction is being threatened, a group of local residents calling themselves Protect Paynes Prairie is working to fight the privatization of the preserve and other public land.
“It’s not just the cattle. It’s hunting, berry harvesting, timbering. These parks are supposed to protect and restore natural resources,” Patricia Harden, a member of the group, told The Sun.
State officials have been secretive about their plans, which were uncovered through public records requests. Paynes Prairie Manager David Jowers and DEP officials refused to talk with a Sun reporter, instead issuing a written statement saying the cattle grazing was being evaluated as a “potential management tool.”
Selective cattle grazing and timber harvesting have been used to eliminate invasive species and provide other environmental benefits in natural areas. But it’s hard to trust that DEP has the best interests of the environment in mind, given Steverson’s profit-driven focus and the concerns raised by public servants who spent their lives protecting Florida’s environment.
Twenty-seven former state managers, including former Paynes Prairie Manager Jack Gillen, wrote a July 13 guest column in The Sun criticizing the state’s plans. They wrote that needed resource management activities are allowed when deemed appropriate by park staff, but DEP leadership is mandating that parks staff allow inappropriate uses.
As they wrote, state parks already face budget and staffing cuts even as they continue to increase in size, visitation and revenue. A study released in 2013 found state parks had a $1.16 billion economic impact In Florida and supported 23,000 jobs.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park drew more than 176,000 visitors, had an economic impact of about $8.6 million and supported 172 jobs in the period analyzed in the study.
Yet that isn’t good enough for DEP leadership. Its plans threaten the recreation value of state parks as well as the environmental benefits provided by protecting wildlife and water quality from the detrimental effects of grazing and other commercial pursuits.
We encourage residents concerned about Paynes Prairie to join the local group, which can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/protectpaynesprairie. The public should be worried when Stevenson and others who have dedicated their lives to protecting the environment don’t like the direction in which the state is taking their beloved park service.