Gov. Rick Scott’s most controversial state agency head won a vote of confidence from senators Wednesday despite calls for his ouster from environmental groups.
The 7-1 vote by a Senate committee was a step forward for Secretary Jon Steverson of the Department of Environmental Protection, whose $150,000-a-year job is on the line because the Senate refused to confirm him in the spring session. If not confirmed next session, he would be the first agency head in more than two decades to be ousted from office for failing to win Senate confirmation.
Steverson has been a target of intense criticism over his plans to consider expansion of commercial activities in state parks, such as hunting, cattle grazing and timber harvesting. The agency says any commercial timber practices are for restoration and resource management, such as removing non-native species.
Florida’s nationally acclaimed network of 174 state parks is running a deficit of an estimated $20 million.
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Steverson wants to make the park system financially self-sustaining, but the idea of money-making ventures in parks has spawned a fierce backlash from the parks’ vocal constituency.
Testifying under oath, Steverson reassured senators about his intentions.
“I’m here to tell you unequivocally today that [the parks] are not for sale,” Steverson said. “I’m not looking to surplus parks. I’m not looking to commercialize parks. And I’m not looking to ruin the park visitor experience.”
He said he wants to improve management practices in parks with the help of the private sector. He also noted that commercial timber practices have been going on in more than 34 state parks since 2005, “long before I got here,” and said any change to existing park use will be thoroughly vetted through a public planning process.
“I can assure you, no one will be firing high-powered rifles on Honeymoon Island,” Steverson said. “For anyone to suggest otherwise is just ludicrous.”
The person who suggested it is one of the Senate’s senior members, Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
The popular Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin is in Latvala’s North Pinellas district. He said recently that allowing hunting in parks is a “disaster waiting to happen,” and he urged Steverson to exclude the park from any lists of potential commercial uses.
David Cullen of the Sierra Club of Florida urged senators to reject Steverson’s confirmation:
“He would subvert the fundamental purpose of managing our state parks for the enjoyment of all citizens to one of economic development for the few,” Cullen said. “Floridians do not want hunting, cattle grazing or timber harvesting in their state parks.”
Debra Harrison Rumberger of the League of Women Voters told senators that “our parks are not for profit, not for plunder.” She testified: “Mr. Steverson is making a mockery of the intention of the founders and donors of our state parks.”
The Republican-controlled Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, chaired by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, confirmed Steverson on a 7-1 vote, with Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, voting no. Another Democrat, Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, voted to confirm Steverson.
Steverson later told reporters that DEP will conduct a park-by-park review of potential uses. He denied claims by critics that the agency would limit public comment at future hearings.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
Three former Florida State Park Service directors jointly wrote a letter of protest in May, saying that “It would be a shame to jeopardize such a prized public asset by misguided actions. Yet that is exactly the prospect we face unless the proponents of these ill-considered proposals can be persuaded otherwise.”
The three directors — Mike Bullock, Fran Mainella and Ney Landrum — have a combined 38 years of experience in the park system, and Mainella also ran the National Park Service.