DEP Committed to Protecting Florida’s Award-Winning State Parks

Secretary Jon Steverson

April 30, 2015

Florida is home to some of the most treasured natural resources in the world, many of which are protected by the best state parks system in the country. I am truly honored to serve Floridians by leading the agency in charge of protecting these special places.

Unfortunately, recent media reports have mischaracterized the Department’s work to identify ways to help state parks become more self-sustaining, which is vital to ensuring these natural resources are protected long into the future.

We are committed to making sure our award-winning state parks remain places where the next generation of Floridians and visitors can continue to enjoy our state’s diverse natural and cultural sites.

In the 80 years since Florida State Parks were first created, the system has grown from four parks, serving a statewide population of 1.6 million, to 171 parks that hosted just over 27 million visitors last year.

I agree that our parks “have been designed to give something to the people of Florida and to our guests that money cannot buy,” but the reality is it takes nearly $80 million a year to provide that service.

Approaching lawmakers with funding requests for organizations, like ours, that are at least striving to be self-sustaining, assists the appropriations argument and helps protect those programs.

In order to not only sustain, but also improve, our environmental and recreational programs for years to come, parks staff at both the statewide and local level are working together to explore ways to expand current successful practices – including responsible resource management tools that have been used in state parks for decades.

The Florida Park Service has contracted with timber companies many times in the past to harvest trees in Florida’s state parks. 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.

Cattle grazing also currently occurs in eight state parks and has for some time, without any complaints from visitors or damage to natural resources, while providing effective vegetation management.

Historically, “rent” for grazing has included an exchange of in-kind services, assisting our park managers with their considerable tasks of managing these properties and offering direct benefits to specific parks. I’m open to building on these successful programs by exploring additional options and properties, including a possible grazing program at Myakka River State Park.

Many members of the media had the benefit of reviewing a DRAFT Request For Proposal for cattle grazing at Myakka before it was completed. It is also still being developed and researched by our State Parks Director, Donald Forgione, who started with the parks in 1983, and our Myakka Park Biologist, Diana Donaghy, in consultation with experts at the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

After examining the plan, I can confirm our long-time employees have no plans to turn Myakka into a feedlot. The DRAFT prescribed grazing plan suggests just 315 animals on over 6,500 acres on the southeast corner of a 37,000 acre park separated by Highway 72.

Visitors will most likely have to seek out the cattle to enjoy a scene from Old Florida, and should not be negatively impacted since other “nontraditional” activities like hopping on one of the world’s two largest airboats, riding horses, cruising on our safari tram, or dining at the Pink Gator Café while listening to live music all occur north of 72.

It’s unfortunate that one potential project was attacked before comprehensive planning and review could occur. I hope proposals will continue to be proffered by our committed staff and discussed with our stakeholders when well formulated.  ­

We are doing a lot at DEP to ensure the sustainability of our parks, and I encourage you to visit https://www.floridastateparks.org to learn more about our programs.

More importantly, please visit our state parks and know that every action we take is to ensure we have beautiful parks for Florida families to enjoy.

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