June 25, 2015
By Donald Forgione
Director, Florida Park Service
Donald Forgione has 27 years of land management experience with the Florida Park Service, serving in numerous roles from park ranger to director.
Florida’s State Park System has been consistently ranked among the best in the country. We’re the only parks system to win a Gold Medal Award more than once – in fact, we’ve won it three times. As the Director of the Florida Park Service, I have the honor and privilege of managing and protecting 171 state parks and trails. I oversee both day-to-day park operations and long-term planning activities to ensure that our park system continues to provide resource-based recreation while also preserving and restoring our natural resources.
I am very fortunate to work alongside a staff of more than 1,000 committed rangers, planners, managers and biologists who strive to keep us the best each and every day. One of my top priorities is, and has always been, to make sure park managers have the tools and resources they need to do their job.
I would like to address some misperceptions and further explain some of the land management tools we use across the state to manage our resources. The tools we use have been, and can continue to be, done in a way that is compatible with the parks’ mission.
Currently, we’re working to identify land management practices that could be expanded and expedited to better achieve our restoration goals. One example is our use of forestry management techniques, which we’ve used to restore and manage lands in 34 parks since 2005.
Throughout the park system, DEP has acquired a number of lands that had previously been planted with trees to be harvested. While in some cases, the tree species is native and appropriate for the site; the density at which these trees are planted is not. In these cases, selective thinning would bring the density more in line with the forest’s natural state and reduce both the potential for, and severity of, wildfires.
In other cases, DEP has acquired pieces of land that were heavily planted with a species for commercial purposes that does not belong in that habitat. We’d remove the trees, then restore the land by re-planting it with a site-appropriate native species.
These timbering activities, which have been occurring for decades, offer numerous ecological benefits, including reducing shade to allow the grasses and shrubs to grow that should exist within the natural habitat.
Another tool we have successfully used is cattle grazing. DEP has acquired lands with improved pasture. Restoring these manipulated lands is costly and time consuming. We continue to graze cattle on some of these pastures to keep them in check. Removing the cattle without an immediate restoration project enables dense oaks and shrubs to grow, which makes it harder and more expensive to restore the land in the future. We are exploring the idea of expanding cattle as a management tool on additional areas.
While we may employ the private sector to provide these activities, as we do our concession operations and other services, the Florida Park Service will always be the ones to manage the lands entrusted to us, both for recreation and protection purposes.
Another misperception I’d like to address is hunting in state parks. Currently, limited hunting is allowed within three properties managed by the Florida Park Service – Rock Springs Run State Reserve, Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve and the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. Expanding opportunities for limited hunting, such as hosting Wounded Warrior, youth, or other special hunts, would not be a method to generate revenue, but to offer another type of recreation in certain, suitable locations. Any expansions in hunting will only be considered in appropriate locations and in partnership with the proper agencies to ensure potential hunts would be safe and have minimal impacts.
When Secretary Jon Steverson first joined the department, he expressed strong interest in helping state parks achieve their land management goals, and we’re beginning a dialogue among the park management team to evaluate options that are available, feasible and logical.
We understand how much the public cares about our parks system, and we appreciate your questions and concerns. Any changes to the management of our state parks will continue be done in an open and transparent manner with opportunities for public comment.
We are beginning to carefully research any new ideas through a sincere process, while taking into account that each park is special. Despite some misperceptions, I can assure you the activities we are exploring are compatible with park operations, and many have been done for decades.
We’re still in the initial research phase for these land management proposals, but any changes that we propose will be in line with each individual park’s unit management plan, which is updated with opportunities for public review and comment, just as we’ve done for many years. We will keep the public apprised of any proposed changes at www.dep.state.fl.us.