Our parks are under siege. For fiscal year 2014-15, the operating expense for the Division of Recreation and Parks was $78 million, of which the parks contributed $64 million from entrance and camping fees. The difference, paid by the taxpayer, was $14 million.
Every year the funding from the legislature goes down and the staffing of the parks is reduced, even as the visitation to and revenue from the parks increases. The estimate of the annual economic benefit to Florida’s economy is $3 billion. Our parks are the best in the country and they return $200 for every dollar spent, yet our elected leaders want to change the system.
Florida Senate Bill 570, which would eliminate state park entrance fees for one year, has been introduced for the 2016 legislative session. How would this affect the parks? First, it would reduce the funds used to hire park staff. Second, it would make the parks less safe.
Eliminating fees would be bad for the parks, bad for the visitors who want to use the parks for passive recreation, and bad for the bottom line.
Another change being proposed is to introduce multiple use management involving timber production, cattle grazing, and hunting. The idea is to enable the parks to pay all of their own operating budget.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which governs the parks, is serious about this. A contract has been signed for a timber inventory of the entire state park system and for the writing of a management plan for the parks based on the timber survey data. People come to the parks to see nature, not commercial forestry or cattle ranching.
If implemented, these management changes will have a significant negative impact on the park experience. We need to let our political leaders in Tallahassee know that we care about our state parks.
Anne Casella, president and Bob Simons, conservation chair, Alachua Audubon Society, Gainesville