If the people of Florida value their state parks as highly as they say they do, they had better cast a wary eye in the direction of Tallahassee. Proposals are being advanced both in the Legislature and in the Department of Environmental Protection that may not bode well for the future of Florida’s nationally recognized state park system.
Florida’s system of outstanding natural preserves, historic sites, and outdoor recreation areas has made it the envy of the nation; in fact, it is the only state park system to be awarded the national Gold Medal Award for Excellence three times.
It would be a shame to jeopardize such a prized public asset by misguided or inappropriate actions. Yet, that is exactly the prospect we face unless the proponents of these ill-considered proposals can be convinced otherwise. And compounding that challenge is the fact that these proposals are originating with the very people who are most responsible, at the highest levels, for the welfare of state parks.
Of recent concern was a bill already enacted by the House of Representatives (HB 7135), and a similar bill pending in the Senate (SB 7086), which could have serious implications for state parks. Although the session ended before they became law, these bills may be back. If either bill became law, the result could be the introduction of “low-impact uses” in certain parks, including Cape Florida, MacArthur Beach and John Pennekamp Coral Reef state parks.
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Such “low impact” uses presumably would be conducted by private interests and could include activities such as cell towers, hunting and cutting of natural forests. Even “low impact” disturbances can be harmful in places such as state parks where the maintenance of delicate natural conditions is so important.
This concept of “multiple uses” of state parks has been proposed before, but in each previous case, it was rejected as being inappropriate and potentially harmful. Conflicting uses have no place in state parks, as they would detract from the experience visitors desire and expect. This proposed legislation should be specifically amended to avoid the risk of impairing state parks.
Of even greater concern is the stated intention of the new secretary of the DEP to make the state park system financially self-supporting. On its face, this might seem appropriate, but it misses the point of why we have a public state park system. There is no more justification or need to make state parks pay for themselves than to do the same with public roads, schools or health facilities. The state provides these institutions to provide services for all people, whether the beneficiaries are able to pay or not.
Because it might be argued that parks are not really a public necessity, it is reasonable to expect the users to pay a modest fee for the benefit they receive. However, it is just as reasonable — even important — for the state to bear an appropriate share of the cost of state parks to reflect the inherent, long-term public benefits they provide. Maintaining public financial support of state parks is critical to their resources and visitors, and to Florida’s tourism-based economy.
There are also practical concerns about requiring state parks to pay for themselves. The most direct route to self-sufficiency would be to increase user fees, but this is self-defeating because it risks pricing the parks out of reach for many, including people with low incomes who need public parks the most.
If more revenues were sought by increasing commercial enterprises in parks, the inevitable result would be to degrade their non-commercial character.
These considerations are essential to maintaining the type of state parks desired by the public, but they are likely to be disregarded if making money becomes the dominant objective. Besides, state parks are already an economic engine for Florida, as demonstrated by the more than 29,300 jobs they create and almost $2.1 billion they contribute to local economies.
Understanding public service — especially where it involves state parks — frequently has to be learned on the job. We can always hope that our representatives and appointed officials in Tallahassee will have that understanding, but, if not, it is important for us, the people they serve, to help them learn.
This is one of those times when the people who love Florida’s state parks, and for whom the parks are intended, to make their feelings known — quickly and emphatically!
Ney C. Landrum is Florida State Parks Director Emeritus, serving from 1970 to 1989. Fran P. Mainella was state parks director from 1989-2001 and director of the National Park Service from 2001 to 2006. Mike Bullock was state parks director from 2003-2010.