Visitors to Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin love picking up shells along the beach, catching fish from the gulf, hiking through the slash pines and spotting the birds soaring overhead. But when the sun goes down, everyone has to leave.
Now the state wants to change that. The Department of Environmental Protection has targeted Honeymoon Island as one of the first of 56 parks where state officials want to add new overnight camping sites — including space for recreational vehicles. Honeymoon Island could get up to 45 campsites on 17.5 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, under the DEP's plan.
In a departure from the way Florida created its award-winning park system, the state's plan calls for letting private companies bid on designing, building and operating the campgrounds on taxpayer-owned land, said DEP's Florida Park Service director Donald Forgioni.
The new campgrounds will require more than just the sites themselves. They will need roads, rest rooms, bathhouses, playgrounds, electric connections, grills and other amenities, too.
To some fans of Honeymoon Island, letting a private contractor build sites for RVs, bathhouses and other amenities will ruin the park, not improve it.
When Richard Selleg heard what was proposed, "it electrified me," he said. He compared it to the attempt by legislators to let Jack Nicklaus build golf courses in state parks, scuttled after a public outcry.
"Honeymoon Island is too small," said Selleg, a land planner who four years ago led a fight to block plans for a boat ramp. "To me, the beach is fine and the wildlife habitat is a drawing card for why people go out there. ... I don't want to see a further deterioration of it."
The Florida Native Plant Society, in its recent newsletter, encouraged members to attend a public hearing next month to tell DEP officials there's a difference between "low-impact tent camping or 30-foot-long RVs with noisy generators, electrical hookups and blaring TVs that disturb wildlife."
The society's newsletter took a dim view of the idea of letting a private company operate the campground: "Private concessionaires may say they care about the environment, but their first priority will be to push for what makes the most money, and the state has a financial incentive to do so as well."
That worries Audubon of Florida, too, said Julie Wraithmell. "Everybody knows a private contractor is going to be looking at their bottom line" instead of what's best for the public, she said.
But Forgioni, who began his career as a park ranger in 1984, contended that private contractors will be just as concerned about the parks as state officials would be.
"The key to this is the wholesomeness and the genuineness of our product and their product," Forgioni said. "They don't want to taint our brand. They need it."
The idea of privatizing state and national parks is fairly new, but it's been endorsed by such pundits as Glenn Beck, who last year said, "I don't know why this doesn't make sense to more people."
Honeymoon Island's lack of campsites is not uncommon. Forgioni said about two-thirds of Florida's 160 state parks have no camping.
The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid, Forgioni said. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP — but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.
"We anticipate it working like this: The private sector designs, builds and operates the campground, including collecting the overnight fees," he said. "Then we get a percentage of their revenue."
He said he had no estimate of how much that might yield but DEP would likely use it to make the state park system more self-sufficient.
DEP pitched its idea — and the list of 56 parks where campgrounds could be built — at a June 10 meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, an advisory committee made up of state officials and private citizens that reviews state land matters.
To ARC member Vickie Larson, the whole proposal seemed hastily thrown together and was offered as an all-or-nothing vote rather than breaking the list down to vote on each park. She voted against it.
"Many of the parks on that list are not suitable for expanding the camping," she said, naming Ichetucknee Springs State Park as an example. "We didn't really get much detailed information." It passed 7-2.
The idea of letting private companies build and operate the campgrounds, she said, was mentioned but was not part of the vote.
Now DEP is pushing ahead with rapidly scheduled public hearings not just for Honeymoon Island but also for three other parks that are tops on its list: De Leon Springs State Park, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park. The hearings on Honeymoon Island, Wakulla Springs and DeLeon Springs are July 5, while Fanning Springs is on July 6.
Both Larson and Audubon's Wraithmell said this push is part of an overall initiative of Gov. Rick Scott's administration regarding the use of state lands, which Wraithmell described as "treating our resources as commodities" regardless of whether it's good for the parks or the public.
But Forgioni contended that expanding camping allows more people to enjoy the park system and soak up natural Florida.
"Camping and state parks go together," he said, "like graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows."
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.