Photo: Florida Gov. Rick Scott (Bob Self / AP)
Dec. 11, 2015 In recent years, the Florida Senate has offered the only semi-reliable hope for pushback against the policies of a governor who seemingly cares little about this state aside from the unemployment rate and how that makes him look. When it comes to protecting Florida’s parks, however, even the Senate isn’t pushing back.
Last month, Jon Steverson came before the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Steverson’s title is secretary of the Department of Environmental Preservation, but the Senate failed to confirm him last spring. He had to start over, seeking a favorable full Senate vote during the session that begins Jan. 12.
Steverson has been controversial. Three months ago, he ran off the qualified executive director of the South Florida Water Management District for failing to sufficiently embrace the tax cut Gov. Rick Scott demanded. Steverson’s most annoying proposal, however, is to turn state parks into cattle ranches, logging operations and hunting grounds.
The governor believes parks should pay for themselves. Would a city expect a police department to pay for itself? No matter. Scott and Steverson note the slacker parks take in only about 80 percent of what it costs to operate them. Their answer? Bring in the chain saws.
There is no public support for such changes. Florida’s parks draw more visitors annually than Disney World. Those visitors want Natural Florida, not For-Profit Florida. So you might think the committee would have roasted Steverson like a wild hog.
Instead, the flame stayed low. The senators allowed Steverson to state without rebuttal that cattle grazing in state parks is “not new.” Strictly for land management, yes. On the scale he has proposed, no.
Steverson played the deferential, self-deprecating public servant. “Thank you for the question,” he said often. Rightly so. The questions had all the sting of cotton balls. Florida’s parks are “not for sale.” But maybe for lease. Steverson loves the outdoors, even though as a young man he was “too fat to go to the beach.”
And how lucky the state is to have Steverson. “I did take a pay cut,” he told the senators. “You know my heart,” he intoned. Ending this silly confirmation business will “allow me to focus on the pressing environmental issues of the day.”
With the senators having abdicated their responsibility, speakers — among them former DEP employees — represented the public. Steverson, one said, wants to end public comment at parks meeting. Another pointed out the parks run a $17 million deficit, but a new schedule of slightly higher fees could raise $23 million. Logging would bring in just $3 million.
The committee approved Steverson’s nomination 7-1. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, hesitated before voting yes. Only Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, voted no.
Compare Steverson’s platitudes before the committee with what became public 10 days later.
The Tampa Bay Times reported DEP’s new deputy secretary for parks and public lands has no environmental experience. Gary Clark has a business degree from an online university and owned some Subway franchises. Currently, however, he owns a quail hunting preserve in the Panhandle.
Steverson praised Clark’s “investment expertise.” The two men met at the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Scott had made Steverson executive director, telling him to cut staff and taxes. Scott named Clark to the district board.