Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: How to squeeze money out of Florida’s state parks

Enough with Florida’s freeloading fauna and flora, mooching off Florida taxpayers, living rent-free on valuable state park land. It’s high time these plants and varmints earned their keep.

For too long, Florida has managed our 171 state parks as if the natural environment was more important than the business environment.

Gov. Rick Scott and Jon Steverson, his lumberjack in chief, regard the state’s parks as bug-infested money sucks. The park system runs on a budget of about $80 million a year, while taking in only $62 million, mostly in visitor fees.

But the Scott administration has some big ideas about monetizing these assets. In March, Steverson told a state Senate committee how he was bent on transforming parks, via an “implementation of optimization planning,” into financially self-sustaining operations. Into something that would “maximize value for the taxpayer.”

What else would Floridians want from a park? To hell with that natural serenity stuff.

Steverson captured the state’s new attitude to park land when he described Topsail Hill, a lovely beachfront park near Destin, as “one of my top money-makers.”

Steverson runs the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, something of a misnomer given how he and Scott have altered the agency’s mission. (Environmental penalties levied under Scott fell from $9.3 million in his first year in office to $1.4 million in 2013.)

Last month, he caused an uproar within Florida’s environmental community when he discussed money-making schemes for the parks. How does an ambitious bureaucrat like Steverson contend with a bunch of tree-huggers? Easy. He cuts down the trees.

In an op-ed distributed to state newspapers, Secretary Steverson waxed about opening parks to timber interests with the kind of enthusiasm former DEP chiefs once had for the actual forests.

Park visitors expecting to see wild animals are also in for a bonus — less-than-wild animals. DEP intends to lease park land out for livestock grazing, including a proposal to set aside 6,630 acres of Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County. The Tampa Bay Times pointed out that the state spent years and gobs of money converting old ranch land enveloped by Myakka River State Park into natural habitat.

Trouble is, natural habitat doesn’t do much for the bottom line.

Lumberjacks and cowboys are only the latest manifestations of the Scott administration’s compulsion to squeeze money out of parks. There’s talk of leasing park property for cellphone towers. Of course, cellphone towers can be disguised as very tall trees, which might be a comfort for nature lovers depressed by the removal of actual trees.

In 2011, public outrage pretty much frightened off legislators who had been pushing a bill to allow a private company to build five luxury golf courses (and resort hotels) in state parks. Nor was the public keen on a proposal to build an RV park on Honeymoon Island, near Dunedin, Florida’s most popular state park.

Another angry public uproar undid the Scott administration’s plans to get rid of 56 “underperforming” park properties.

The damn stubborn public, apparently, can’t see the profit for the trees.