Sometimes it seems like there’s not enough actual Florida left.
In many places, we are an endless stretch of highways and strip malls, gas stations and golden arches, same as anywhere else in America.
But then maybe you get lucky enough to find yourself wandering one of Florida’s state parks, with real Florida all around you. Might want to hurry, though. Those Tallahassee politicians are pondering big plans for your parks.
Our 80-year-old park system stretches from the Panhandle to the Keys, taking in shoreline and river, highland scrub and gator swamp. You kayak past unspoiled beaches and walk winding boardwalks under cool canopies of trees dripping Spanish moss. You can spot a scrub jay, otters cavorting, the leavings of a black bear.
The other day, I was walking through a preserved piece of Florida just as a storm ended. Three gopher tortoises lumbered onto the path in front of me and stretched their wrinkled necks to sip rainwater gathered on leaves. It was a very cool thing to see.
So, naturally, the first thing you think as you’re taking in our award-winning state park system is:
Why aren’t these things making more money?
Okay, maybe you think that only if you’re of a certain type in Tallahassee, where the air surely must be different from what the rest of us breathe.
Gov. Rick Scott, a true carpetbagger who was barely a Florida resident long enough to qualify as a candidate, runs this state like a cutthroat business rather than a place we all live. He and like-minded political types are pushing to make our state parks earn their keep —beyond the $2.1 billion in economic impact the park system brought in for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
As the Times’ Craig Pittman reports, their really just super ideas include taking park land intended to be preserved and opening it up to cattle ranchers and lumber companies.
During this legislative session, two bills were percolating that would mandate “low-impact agriculture” as a specific goal of our state park system. And your definition of “low-impact” could differ greatly from that of a politician who looks at parks and sees prime real estate.
Already, the Department of Environmental Protection (ha) is working on a plan that would allow cattle ranchers to take over a portion of Myakka River State Park two counties south of us. And once the gates open to treating parks as something other than pristine, preserved pieces of the best of Florida, do not expect them to close.
Do you suppose the governor has ever seen a gopher tortoise?
Okay, it’s not quite as insulting as a 2011 bill that would have allowed hotels and golf courses in five state parks — an outrage that rightly died when the people pushed back.
But we’re talking about part of our state kept separate and unsullied, for everyone. Once that’s gone, it’s not coming back.
You would think Florida voters’ overwhelming support for Amendment 1, intended to acquire, improve and protect land in the name of the environment, would tell Tallahassee about the will of the people they allegedly serve. Nope. Some lawmakers have different ideas on that.
You start to wonder if the state motto should be: Florida, where not much is sacred.
Except our state parks should be. And Tallahassee should know it.
Sue Carlton is a Tampa Bay Times columnist.
c. 2015 Tampa Bay Times