Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Bambi’s bulletproof days in Florida may be near an end

Damn those furry freeloaders anyhow, hiding behind their inherent cuteness with their twitchy little noses and big brown eyes and cuddly offspring.

For eight decades, varmints have been exploiting the goodwill of Florida taxpayers, living the good life in state parks under the mistaken assumption that they were romping around in hunter-free zones.

Well, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — don’t be confused by the agency’s misleading name — has other ideas. Bambi’s bulletproof days are over.

Last month, the Tampa Bay Times uncovered Florida Department of Environmental Protection documents that described how the DEP intends to wring more money out of its 170 state parks. The “Optimized Land Management and Cost Recovery” proposal included a number of “action plans,” including leasing out park land to cellphone tower operators and cattle and timber interests. And — lock ’n load, boys — to open up parks to hunters.

I suppose this will allow Jon Steverson, Rick Scott’s man at DEP, to say that he’s getting more bangs for the bucks. But aside from the pun value, it’s difficult for an urban dweller like me to understand Steverson’s shoot-em-up rationale.

Apparently, park professionals suffer the same incomprehension. “No recreational activity is more incompatible with why state parks exist than hunting,” Albert Gregory told me Friday via email. Gregory, who retired as chief planner after 35 years with the Florida park system, wrote, “Every study of park visitors that’s ever been conducted shows that wildlife viewing is one of the main reasons people visit state parks and is among the top things they like to do during their visit.”

Wildlife viewing and wildlife shooting would not seem all that compatible. Except that park animals will be easy pickings for Florida’s intrepid woodsmen. At least, in the beginning.

Jim A. Stevenson, the state park service’s former chief naturalist, talked Friday about how park animals, accustomed to people armed only with cameras, have shed much of their natural shyness and don’t scurry for cover like their counterparts in the wild when humans approach. “Like that lion the dentist shot,” Stevenson said, referring to Cecil the lion, who was killed by an American dentist after the iconic creature was lured away from his Zimbabwe wildlife park.

“But these animals aren’t stupid. After a few shots, the ones that don’t get killed will go into hiding,” he said. So much, then, for the wildlife watching and wildlife photography for the nonviolent park visitors.

Apparently, the hunting “action plan” has something to do with the promise DEP Secretary Steverson made last spring to make the park system financially self-sustaining. “I want to maximize value for the taxpayers, but also for the environment,” Steverson told state legislators. He has yet to be confirmed by Scott’s fellow Cabinet members, making his current title “acting secretary.” Or, as parents of small, animal-loving children might view his seven-month tenure, “acting-out secretary.”

But it’s hard to see the money-making potential of park land hunting. Jim Stevenson (with a similar name to Steverson, but with an utterly dissimilar park-management philosophy) guessed that trophy hunters might pay a large bounty for a park deer or, now that bear hunting has been legalized in Florida, a half-tame park black bear.

He noted that revenue from admission tickets and other fees collected at state parks already provides 77 percent of operating costs, compared to an average of 42 percent among the nation’s 50 state park systems. “To think that they want to make parks pay their own way — it’s ridiculous.”

And Florida parks are wildly popular, with attendance approaching 30 million so far this fiscal year. Raising entrance fees would seem an easier way to up the revenue.

But somebody — somebody with political juice — wants to hunt on Florida’s park land.

Ney Landrum, who served as Florida Park Service director from 1970 to 1989, said, “We’ve been fighting that battle for decades. Since the 1930s, the sportsman lobby has been trying to get hunting in the parks.”

Over the years, hunters have managed to get access to three wildlife “reserves” overseen by the park system, but Landrum said park managers have managed to fend off incursions into the state’s 167 other parks.

He worries that the DEP will introduce hunting in the guise of a “limited” wildlife management tool. “But once you do that, once you let them get a foot in the door, it becomes difficult to make the distinction. This will end up opening all the parks to hunting.”

Landrum added that he isn’t opposed to hunting. “Most park managers like to hunt,” he said. “But just because you like to do something, that doesn’t justify hunting in the parks.”

A DEP spokesman told me Friday that there has been no action, one way or another, since the Tampa Bay Times broke the story of the hunting proposal last month. With wildlife groups and park supporters and at least 38 former state park managers upset over the “Optimized Land Management and Cost Recovery” plan, I would have thought that Steverson would have dropped park hunting -- sure to stir up an indignant army of school children and their parents -- just to make his other money-making ideas more palatable. But no.

Albert Gregory, the retired park planner, said he was worried that the DEP intends to push the hunting proposal through with little public input. “We wouldn’t even know they were planning to do it at all if they hadn’t been forced to release a draft document that showed they were on a fast track heading in that direction,” Gregory said. “It makes me wonder what else they’re considering that we don’t know about yet.”