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Push to create private jobs powered controversial state parks plan

A controversial plan to allow private contractors to build and operate campsites at state parks came from a push to create private-industry jobs to help Gov. Rick Scott fulfill a campaign promise, according to internal e-mails exchanged by parks officials earlier this year.

As a result, officials rushed out a hastily drafted list of 56 parks where they believed new campsites could work, including a suggestion to somehow squeeze 120 of them into Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin — a number later scaled back to 45.

Park officials told the public the choices were rooted in their extensive expertise, but internal e-mails show they knew it was a rush job. In a May 9 e-mail, parks planning chief Albert Gregory wrote that the list of parks was "based on a fast assessment that was done to meet a very short deadline. It involved only two questions: (1) is there a large enough area of uplands in the park to build additional campsites; and (2) how many? It didn't consider anything else."

But the push for privately run campgrounds in the publicly owned parks — including spaces for recreational vehicles — ran into serious problems. Officials faced not just vocal opposition from fans of the parks, but also landscape issues and legal questions from federal officials.

In the end, none of the proposed plans will be headed to an advisory committee vote this month. Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione conceded in an interview last week that "we definitely need to do our due diligence a little more."

However, the push for campsites has not been abandoned.

"We need more camping in Florida state parks, period, the end," said Forgione, who has worked for the service, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection, since 1983.

The whole thing started a month after Scott was elected on a promise to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years.

"Anytime anybody gets a new boss, you think, 'How can we help our new boss succeed?' " explained Forgione.

But to Julie Wraithmell, of Audubon of Florida, using the public parks to create private jobs makes no sense.

"That's not the park service's mission," she said. "It's providing recreational opportunities for people and protecting our natural resources."

Nevertheless, that was the message the park service got.

"Our new governor has put together a transition team that has been meeting with the leaders of every agency in state government," Danny Jones, the top parks official in the Panhandle, wrote to his staff on Dec. 6. "They are looking at ways to create new jobs in Florida and to increase the state's revenue."

He encouraged the staff to think of ways to do both: "Your ideas may not be as crazy as you think." For example, he said, "Does your unit plan call for cabins or campgrounds to be built?"

Officials talked about putting zip lines in parks. In a Jan. 5 e-mail, Forgione wrote about taking DEP deputy secretary Bob Ballard to visit a privately run zip line in the Panhandle.

"I can assure you zip lining is a legitimate outdoor recreational experience which has the potential to have a minimal impact on the environment (perhaps even less of an impact than a nature trail)," Forgione wrote. "We had a terrific time and plan on meeting with the management of this and other zip line operators next week to begin the process of soliciting zip line operations in Florida state parks."

However, Forgione said last week, they soon learned that building zip lines was far more complex than building a nature center, and for now have postponed their plans.

There was even discussion about creating pocket parks — with campgrounds — near attractions such as Walt Disney World and shuttling tourists between the two. The DEP's senior architect suggested that these parks would could combine "the premium urban campground with the new zip line concept," but now that, too, has been deferred.

By far the boldest idea was adding campgrounds to parks that did not allow camping — and letting private companies build and operate them, something the state had never done before.

Normally, each new campsite would cost the state an average of $40,000, according to DEP figures. But officials knew they faced unprecedented budget cuts: Layoffs, no money for buying park lands, and little for building facilities. That was another reason to let private companies build and operate them.

The big question was where to put them. The staff quickly pulled together its list — including Honeymoon Island, the state's most popular park. The flaws in that hasty list soon became apparent, as they had to scale back what would fit at Honeymoon Island.

In fact, when a DEP biologist walked the proposed campground area at DeLeon Springs State Park, near Deland, he wrote in a July 7 e-mail that he found "a large portion of this area is not the hammock we thought it was, instead it is a wetland." Worse, he found "by far the dominant plant … is the endangered yellow anise. It is absolutely everywhere … Impacts will be unavoidable."

Federal officials raised other concerns. The National Park Service pointed out that the state had used money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy some park land — Honeymoon Island, for instance. That meant any new campgrounds there would have to comply with a list of federal rules, it warned.

When word began to spread about what the DEP had planned for Honeymoon Island, DeLeon Springs and two other parks first in line for new campsites, a public outcry began that did not end until Scott announced the camping plan would be pulled for more study.

The governor took that step after hundreds of opponents turned out for a rowdy public hearing in Dunedin, presided over by Gregory, on the Honeymoon Island proposal. Many complained the DEP had been trying to slide the changes through without telling the public in advance.

"We survived," Gregory e-mailed his boss afterward. "Opponents 1,000, proponents 0. Had to move through presentations fast. No one was listening."

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com

Push to create private jobs powered controversial state parks plan 08/09/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 11:09pm]
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