In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Forever is a short time in Florida

Forever — as in Florida Forever — runs out this fall.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has deemed as “surplus” some 160 tracts of Florida Forever land — more than 5,000 acres. DEP assembled the list, counting on a big $50 million selloff in November.

But not long after the list of expendable properties popped up on the DEP website last month, a fearsome reaction erupted across the state, as locals noticed that the state was intent on selling off chunks of their state parks and nature preserves.

In South Florida, for example, DEP figured on extracting 145 acres from Oleta River State Park. Folks in South Florida went apoplectic. To gauge the statewide firestorm DEP created for itself, multiply our local reaction by 32 other state parks to be sliced up for the proposed sell-off.

By Aug. 29, so much hell had been raised that DEP removed 474 acres from the “surplus” list. By the middle of last week, the number of tracts extracted from the “for sale” list had reached 51 properties and 709 acres, including the land in Oleta River State Park. On Friday evening, 345 acres along the Wekiva River Parkway in Central Florida went suddenly off the real estate market.

Not that DEP fixed its PR disaster, which reaches from the Keys, where 17 tracts along A1A between Tavernier to Plantation Key remain on the surplus list, to Jacksonville, where locals were stunned the state might gut the Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park.

To be fair, DEP was put in this bind by the Legislature’s pretend gesture toward re-funding a Florida Forever program that had been eviscerated under Gov. Rick Scott. A new law promised to restore $70 million to the land-acquisition program this year, except that $50 million of that had to come from the sale of so-called “surplus” conservation land. By mid-summer, it had become clear to DEP officials that the definition of “surplus” had to expand mightily for the sell-off to come anywhere near $50 million.

DEP’s credibility in the big land deal wasn’t helped by the timing. A few days after the controversial list went public, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released a startling assessment of the state’s environmental enforcement record since Secretary Herschel Vinyard took over DEP in 2011. “Pollution penalties collected fell 70% in just one year, contributing to an 81% drop in payments from polluters since 2010.” The report added that the “total number of new cases opened by DEP dipped by 42% in 2012, off 58% since 2010.”

And now this, DEP’s biggest PR disaster since 2011, when Scott decided to get rid of financially inefficient state parks, planning to close 53 “unprofitable” parks, while turning 56 others over to private operators.

All that perished in a furious public backlash. Scott and Vinyard, surprised to learn that Floridians loved their parks more than Tea Party ideology, seemed chastened by the experience. Apparently, not chastened enough.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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