Last fall, the Division of Environmental Protection (DEP), which runs Florida’s state parks, prepared a plan that would have closed 53 of them to save money, according to a report on Flagerlive.com. Park supporters around the state and Florida Audubon mobilized. By the time Gov. Rick Scott announced his budget, closing parks was no longer in the works.
The DEP is now proposing to partially privatize 56 parks. The proposal is being submitted to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council Friday (June 10) as an expansion of camping and RV opportunities at those sites. But the camping and RV sites would be built and operated by private companies.
The council is an 11-member panel with representatives from five state agencies who rank the state’s environmentally sensitive land-acquisition priorities through the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever has essentially lost its funding, leaving the council to focus on its other mission: reviewing management plans for state parks and conservation lands.
Opening parks up to camping and RV sites falls under park management plans, which would have to be amended to enable the change. Those plans, called the “unit management plan,” are reworked every 10 years, with public hearings and involvement. DEP is asking the council to accelerate the process, though it would also make provisions for a public meeting at each affected park. The DEP’s proposal does not specify a formal public hearing, though that may be a matter of semantics.
“The new facilities will be designed, constructed and operated by private entities selected through the department’s procedures for soliciting and contracting state park concession services,” the DEP’s summary proposal reads. “The department will retain full control over all aspects of planning, design, construction and operation of the new facilities to ensure consistency with the mission and quality standards of the state park system. This system-wide expansion of camping opportunities will increase the level of public benefits state parks provide, enhance the economic benefits of state parks, create jobs, and move the state park system closer to economic self-sufficiency.”
The DEP will seek out bids from private industry for the 56 parks it has identified. “Based on the responses, the department will select parks to receive further consideration for new development,” the proposal reads.
“This is only the first step in examining the potential for increasing family camping opportunities,” DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email to The Current’s Bruce Richie, who first reported the DEP’s plan. “The Florida Park Service has not yet conducted detailed site analyses and will go through the necessary steps to determine if, where and how much camping is appropriate.”
The DEP is framing the proposal as an expansion of “family camping,” which resonates positively with park lovers — and draws little opposition from park advocates. But the essential change behind the proposal is its privatization aspects, as the park system would not be running the new operations, which could become a first step toward further privatization — a move being considered in other states, notably in Arizona.