Florida State Parks in Peril
Apr 01, 2017 01:10AM
by Juliette Jones, in collaboration with Jim Stevenson, Florida State Parks chief naturalist (1969-1989) and retired DEP senior biologist
If you care about the future of Myakka River State Park, you will want to do something about the imminent plans to tear it apart!
Do you find yourself driving through Sarasota County, shocked to observe the speed at which housing and commercial developments continue to spring up, overtaking the natural beauty and relaxing atmosphere of our cities? Try negotiating traffic on the intersection of I-75 and University at the close of a business day. Urban sprawl and traffic congestion have become the signature of government decision makers, and if this trend continues, you might soon find yourself in a place you hardly recognize.
It’s happening right before our eyes but behind our backs. Do you wonder how and why this is occurring? Think no further than Sarasota County politicians and their connections with commercial developers. Something akin to this is unfolding within our state park system as well. 80 years ago, the first of Florida’s state parks was dedicated. This didn’t happen because of government agencies or mega corporations but through efforts made by women’s clubs––people who, at the time, had not even achieved the right to vote.
Since then, Florida park systems have grown statewide to 174 units, totaling 813,000 acres. Florida state parks rank among the highest in the nation due to established standards for the preservation of areas with exceptional scenic, historic, scientific and recreational interest. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) oversees the management of state parks. Every 10 years, there is an update of management practice. This year, a sinister plan has reared its ugly head which threatens to undermine the entire purpose for which our state parks have been put into place. This involves introduction of a practice called “consumptive use.”
Consumptive use means giving the government an ability to use or sell the parks’ natural resources to private industry for profit, which is nothing less than an attack on resources and pristine properties belonging to the people of this state. Consumptive use can include hunting wildlife, cutting timber, grazing cattle and, currently at Myakka, harvesting pine stumps and removing palm fronds for commercial sale––all of which is entirely disruptive of the original forest setting.
The Beginning of the End
The state park service has never before been designated for consumptive use. This is strictly the brainchild of the Scott regime. Consumptive use flies in the face of the entire purpose for these state parks. These men have proposed changes in the parks’ management which threaten the integrity of the entire park system. You know how it works: “Give them an inch, and they will take a mile.”
According to former Florida State Parks chief naturalist Jim Stevenson, “All listed secondary uses serve only the DEP’s objective to sell the park piece by piece to increase revenue. No benefit to the natural values of the park or visitor enjoyment will be realized. The long-standing prohibition of consumptive use has served the state parks well for 80 years. (The only permissible consumptive use has been fishing.)”
The rationale for this proposed goal is to make the parks self-supporting. Stevenson adds, “According to DEP’s data, 32 million Floridians and tourists enjoyed our state parks last year. Parks produced $2.8 billion total direct economic impact and $29,400 jobs for the state. What other agency generates 86% of its costs? Florida’s population of 20 million pay less than one dollar per person for the finest state parks in the nation.”
Park rangers and biologists have always loved their jobs. Their mission is to serve the public and keep the parks in their best natural condition possible. These are not high paying jobs either. Under the Scott administration, the DEP has cut 311 positions since 2011, and the Governor recommended cutting 51 positions during the 2016 budget. “By cutting staff, the parks cannot be adequately maintained which the DEP will use to justify contracting with private companies,” Stevenson adds. Institutional memories which are critical to continuity in these settings will soon be eliminated.
These parks are actually living nature museums. At present, state parks like the Myakka are the only remnants left of old Florida––protected places where the public can visualize what Sarasota County once looked like in its original natural state.
Another onerous feature of this strategy is that park service personnel are gagged. “They dare not speak publically or privately about the current circumstances. On more than one occasion, professional staff have been fired and escorted from the office building with no advance notice. A high-level professional biologist was treated in this manner three weeks before he was to retire. Fear and intimidation are the new norm.” America the Beautiful indeed!
According to Florida Statute 258 on State Parks and Preserves, Section 258.937, the purpose of the state parks is as follows:
It shall be the purpose of the Division of Recreation and Parks to promote the state park system for the use, enjoyment and benefit of the people of Florida and visitors; to acquire typical portions of the original domain of the state which will be accessible to all of the people, and of such character as to emblemize the state’s natural values; conserve these natural values for all time, administer the development, use and maintenance of these lands and render such public service in so doing, in such a manner as to enable the people of Florida and visitors to enjoy these values without depleting them; to contribute materially to the development of a strong mental, moral and physical fiber in the people; to provide for perpetual preservation of historic sites and memorials of statewide significance and interpretation of their history to the people; to contribute to the tourist appeal of Florida.
Faux Public Hearing Attracts Angry Citizens
On the evening of March 2, a so-called hearing was held at the Suncoast Community Church Activity Center on the subject of the Myakka River Management plan update. Hundreds of concerned and angry citizens––a standing room only crowd––filled the room. Oral public comment or discussion was not permitted. People were told to express their concerns by filling out forms, speaking to park rangers at designated stations or to the court reporter outside. The heated crowd made spontaneous remarks and objections as to the deceptive nature of the draft plan, consumptive use as a practice and the structure of this public hearing.
The entire state park system and those who truly care for its preservation are in the path of this takeover. At the same time, people who should be protecting and guiding the management of our public assets are busy with the process of tearing them down. Rick Scott has his eye on a Senate seat in 2018. If you care about the state parks, tell Governor Scott what you think of his plans for consumptive use. Act now before it’s too late.
To state your concerns and add your voice to the conversation, call 850-488-7146, visit FLGov.com/Contact-Gov-Scott/Email-the-Governor or write a letter to the following address: Office of Governor Rick Scott, State of Florida, The Capital, 400 S Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-7146. A copy of the draft plan is available at Goo.gl/wqX7Oz.