TAMPA — Conservationists are drawing a line in the scrubland, vowing to fight any attempt by the state to expand logging and cattle grazing throughout Florida’s 171 state parks.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson, appointed in December by Gov. Rick Scott, set off a furor last month when he suggested in a series of newspaper guest columns that Florida expand grazing and timber harvesting in its state parks as a way to offset the cost of running them.
In the columns, which ran in newspapers throughout Florida, Steverson said state parks hosted more than 27 million visitors last year and his department is committed to maintaining them as places “where the next generation of Floridians and visitors can continue to enjoy our state’s diverse natural and cultural sites.”
Keeping those parks open and functioning, he said, costs $80 million a year. He said there is some grazing and logging going on already.
“The Florida Park Service has contracted with timber companies many times in the past to harvest trees in Florida’s state parks,” Steverson wrote. “Timbering offers numerous ecosystem and land management benefits, including increasing plant diversity, cultivating wildlife habitat and improving prescribed burning conditions. As an added benefit, the parks generate revenue from timber sales, which returns to the trust fund that pays for park operations and restoration activities.”
Conservationists are skeptical and gearing up for a fight.
“We’re unhappy about the mixed use, commercial and industrial development of our state parks,” said Frank Jackalone, with the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club.
He said Scott’s administration already has sought to sell off conservation lands as surplus “and now they’re moving to disrupt the state park experience for people.”
“These parks are for recreation and for protecting natural Florida, not to turn them into cow grazing pastures,” Jackalone said. “We have enough grazing pastures in Florida already.”
Steverson wrote in his columns that eight state parks currently lease pasture lands for cattle grazing, “without any complaints from visitors or damage to natural resources, while providing effective vegetation management.”
He said he’s exploring a proposal to implement a leasing program that will allow grazing at the Myakka River State Park, southeast of Sarasota.
“I can confirm our longtime employees have no plans to turn Myakka into a feedlot,” Steverson said. “The draft-prescribed grazing plan suggests just 315 animals on over 6,500 acres on the southeast corner of (the) 37,000-acre park.”
Jackalone said Myakka River State Park “seems to be at the top of the list where Steverson wants to put cow grazing in. The Sarasota community is up in arms already about this. This is a strong bipartisan environmental community here and whenever that hearing takes place, 1,000 people will be there, 1,000 people with pitchforks.”
State parks should be places where people can enjoy the natural beauty of unspoiled Florida, he said.
“The state is looking at state parks as cash cows,” he said. “That’s a pun, but that’s what it is. They want to sell off land or rent land to make additional money, and then Gov. Scott will be able to give out his tax cuts.”
Florida is not the only state looking at ways to extract more money from parks as a way to offset the cost of running them.
According to a recent story in the New York Times, state parks across the nation since 2008 have upped operational spending by $100 million to $2.4 billion while state legislators have slashed a total of $250 million from park budgets. Parks have had to make up the difference by increasing user fees and creating other revenue streams.
Some have opened lands to private concerns like cattle grazing and timbering. Others have rented space for cell towers and billboards. Some are considering “glamping” — glamorous camping, where campers are charged high prices for ritzy-style campgrounds with expensive amenities.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has suggested state parks in Wisconsin stand on their own with no funding at all from state coffers. Lawmakers in Alabama are considering cutting $10 million from the state’s parks budget, which could shutter some parks there.
In Florida, public land resources are for sale around the state.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns about 343,714 acres of conservation lands, draws revenue from a variety of sources.
Last fiscal year, timbering alone brought in about $308,000, but yearly totals can vary widely. The average yearly revenue from logging is about $250,000, figures show. The district also collected, over the past eight months, a combined $43,100 from cell tower and billboard leases and hog hunting fees. Last year, those three revenue sources pulled in about $55,000.
The district collected nearly $12,000 from cattle grazing leases over the past eight months, though new bids that just went out likely will triple that figure by the end of the fiscal year. In 2014, the district was paid just under $30,000 on cattle grazing leases.
The district also is on the verge of declaring as “surplus” 170 acres of Hillsborough County land jointly bought by the water management agency and the county; the designation could allow the land to be sold.
The Florida Forestry Service, in its January newsletter, said it manages a lucrative timber sales program, each year conducting between 30 and 40 timber sales on 1.2 million acres of forestry property throughout the state.
“This year alone,” the newsletter said, “the Florida Forest Service expects to sell approximately 450,000 tons of state forest timber, generating $6.4 million in revenue.”
The service, which oversees 37 state forests, which are separate from state parks, gets revenue from sales of pine straw and cones, palmetto fans and berries, cabbage palm trees and fronds, as well as leases for cattle grazing and apiary placement.
Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said the department constantly reviews land management operations with regard to state parks “to identify and implement opportunities to make our parks and lands more self-sustaining.”
“This will both benefit taxpayers and ensure natural resources are protected into the future by guaranteeing that the parks system will be able to fund operations to achieve its ultimate goals of ecosystem restoration, resource-based recreation and land management and conservation.”
She said the department’s staff is in the process of gathering information to evaluate which parks might be appropriate for various revenue-producing methods.
“We are still in the very early stages of this process,” Miller said. “Any proposed changes to the state park management will be thoroughly vetted, including a chance for the public to comment.”