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Money, Politics at Work in Florida Park Push

Florida state officials want to build private campgrounds at state parks that mostly serve as nature preserves. WUSF Public Media reported that Honeymoon Island, the state’s most-visited park off the Pinellas coast has been spared – with the help of some very vocal opponents. But the fate of 55 other state parks is still in doubt.

As Albert Gregory, chief of the state Division of Recreation and Parks, soon found out, the loud hum from the crowd that overflowed during a public hearing in Dunedin last week left little doubt where most of them stood.

“The purpose of the meeting,” he says, “is to discuss a proposed land management plan amendment to the Honeymoon Island State Park plan for the purpose of introducing family camping.”

The crowd responded with loud boos.

Gregory was greeted by a crowd of more than 400 people – just about as many were kept outside by security guards.

He then told them of Gov. Scott’s plans to introduce some private enterprise into the state parks service.

“I want to talk about how the family camping will be implemented,” Gregory continued. “The parks that have plans that make it through the process and are approved – the department may solicit business plans for a private sector vendor to come and build the facilities.

The crowd responded again with loud boos.

Most state park campgrounds are packed on weekends and holidays, and you have to get a reservation – sometimes months in advance. Gregory told the crowd the state has relied for years on private vendors to run everything from campground stores to the online reservation service.

“If we have a concessionaire that’s not making the grade, we send them on the road,” he says. “We’ve done this a hundred times, and it’s working very well.”

That was of little concern to the mulititudes who crowded into the Dunedin senior center. One of the speakers, Clay Colson, says he represents several groups, including “Citizens for Sanity.” He implored the crowd to fight not just the Honeymoon Island campground, but the other 55 parks in consideration.

“We’ve got to end this idea of privatization of public lands for private profit,” says Colson. “That’s ridiculous. There’s a reason we have parks that don’t have camping in them. They’ve actually done studies – we do management plans for parks. We have 160 state parks – about one-third of them are appropriate for camping. The rest of them are not appropriate for camping. They’re especially not appropriate for RV’s. They’re preserves. It’s a preservation.

Apparently, their voices carried all the way to Tallahassee. Three days later, the governor’s office issued a statement saying it’s backing down from the campground plan – at least for Honeymoon Island.

The other 55 state parks targeted for public hearings? Well, they’ll have to wait for their answer.

Although Gregory says the changes are intended to increase access by the public to the state parks, another official says building new campgrounds is motivated purely by economics. Peter Frederick says nearly one-third of all state park revenue comes from campers. He says Gov. Scott has issued a mandate to state parks to become self-sustaining – or possibly shut down.

“I think the agencies are becoming very squeezed,” says Frederick, who is a biology professor at the University of Florida. “They are being forced to come up with new revenue or make some new cuts. They may have to let staff go, or they may have to do a poorer job of managing our public lands.”

Frederick is also one of nine members of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which will have the final say on the fate of the rest of the 56 state parks targeted for campgrounds.

On paper, the nine-member Council seems to be balanced between environmental and business interests.

One member is part of a group dedicated to “protect environmentally sensitive areas and to enhance public access.” Another works for a timber company. It’s chairman is Herschel Vinyard. Before being named Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), he was director of business operations for a shipyard.

Frederick says he’s worked with most of those people the past two years – and doesn’t doubt their committment to maintain the integrity of the parks system. But there’s new pressure from Gov. Scott.

“I think they’re getting squeezed here. And I think it’s a very difficult decision for them,” says Frederick. “The sense that I get is that although they’re interested in generating the revenue, that they will look carefully at these proposals as they go along. Keep in mind that we have yet to see any specific proposal for any state park.”

The state has been in a financial squeeze since the housing market bottomed out about five years ago, and state lawmakers had to close a budget gap of nearly $4 billion. Frederick says the governor’s mandate to make more money – or else – may leave very few options for the people who run the state’s parks.

“If the agencies have been given this very clear mandate to generate revenue, the only other option for becoming revenue-neutral – from the legislature’s point of view,” he says, “is to either sell off lands or to begin letting state employees go.”

DEP Secretary Vinyard wrote a letter last week saying the state will “evaluate how to proceed” with plans to expand camping at three other parks where public hearings have already been held.

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