State officials clash with critics over controversial DEP secretary appointment

State officials clash with critics over controversial DEP secretary appointment
Ashley Belanger

"Three-time gold medal winner."

Over and over again, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet members repeated this phrase during the Tuesday, Aug. 4 state cabinet meeting, boasting about how Florida's state parks have been recognized by the National Recreation and Park Association. The state park system, which hosts about 27 million visitors a year and generates $2.1 billion, won its third award from the organization in 2013, a feat no other state has accomplished.

And yet, despite the apparent pride they take in the system's success, Gov. Rick Scott and newly appointed state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson want to radically alter it. Their plan is to open Florida's state parks to cattle grazing, timber harvesting and hunting in an effort to make the park system pay for itself.

Officials and legislators have attempted to change the park system before, and since 2011 (just after Scott took office), there have been repeated attempts to put golf courses, hotels and billboards on public park lands. Steverson, who has served as the interim secretary of the state DEP since December, was reappointed Aug. 4 despite opposition by environmentalists who say his proposals would commercialize and privatize the state's park system.

The clash started in March, when Steverson told a Senate committee that the park system covers only 77 percent of its $80 million budget. He would prefer to see the parks become "self-sustaining."

In April, the Tampa Bay Times obtained internal DEP draft documents called the "Optimized Land Management and Cost Recovery Plan," in which the agency details how by the end of 2015, it plans to have bid documents ready to send out to companies for timber harvesting and cattle grazing. The plan also called for the agency to coordinate with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to allow hunting as a recreational activity in certain parks.

The DEP also highlights its desire to "prioritize outsourced labor needs" – in other words, hire outside help for prescribed burns and the management of exotic and imperiled species, tasks that are usually reserved for park staff. DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller told the Times earlier in June that the documents were outdated and never finalized or vetted by Steverson or other agency leadership.

Retired Florida Park Service chief naturalist Jim Stevenson says DEP's plans would be the most significant change affecting state parks since the system was established in 1935.

"If there was ever a case of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' this is a prime example," he says. "The state parks have been a single-use agency for 80 years but now DEP intends to manage the parks under a multiple-use philosophy, which means practically any activity is permissible as long as it generates more income."

Florida State Statute 258.037 regarding state parks and preserves says it is the agency's policy 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."

Stevenson says the people of Florida take great pride in their parks, and indeed, this sentiment was expressed when Florida voters approved Amendment 1 last November by a 75 percent majority, setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and protect endangered waters and land. Despite that overwhelming message from voters, Florida legislators diverted environmental money for routine expenses like wages for officials who regulate fish farming, new patrol vehicles for wildlife officers, salaries in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and funds for law enforcement officers to ticket speeding boaters, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

"Who will protect our state parks from such ill-conceived uses?" Stevenson asks. "Park managers are not permitted to speak in defense of their parks as they have been gagged by DEP executives."

During his appointment on Tuesday, Steverson said it seemed like some wanted to kill the agency's proposal in the cradle.

"We're not privatizing these parks," he says. "We're not commercializing these parks. But we want to use the private sector to help us accomplish the tasks."

Steverson was chastised by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, but both officials ultimately agreed to appoint him. Atwater told Steverson to improve his communication regarding the proposal with the public, and Putnam told him to "delete" the proposal off his priority list.

Jean Huffman, on behalf of Florida Parks in Peril and the Protect Paynes Prairie parks advocacy groups, implored cabinet members at the Aug. 4 meeting to postpone voting on Steverson's appointment until September, which Gov. Scott had proposed at a cabinet meeting in June. Environmentalists have said they were suspicious of Scott's decision to speed up the vote as a way to limit public criticism.

Mark Smith, who was an environmental educator for 22 years with the Florida Park Service, says DEP is preparing to test its proposals on Myakka River State Park near Sarasota and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy.

Smith, who has joined the recently formed Protect Paynes Prairie group, says the Myakka River State cattle lease proposal calls for ranchers to do "in-kind" services to Agriculture for free, like building fences, in exchange for the cattle-grazing opportunity, a move that could make some park staff obsolete.

"It's not just about protecting the environment," he says. "It's protecting the ability of a dad to take his 5-year-old daughter on a walk and see an alligator basking on La Chua Trail. You don't just lose animals, plants and water. You lose experiences that can change your life."

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