Newly released electronic messages from Tallahassee offer an object lesson in why citizens can't leave the future of Florida in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. E-mails between Department of Environmental Protection staffers as they rushed to add privately built and run campgrounds to more than 50 state parks reveal an abdication of stewardship to curry favor with a new boss. That's not the mission for the state's environmental protection agency, much less the state park system. Citizen outrage derailed the plan for at least Honeymoon Island State Park.
As St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman reported Wednesday, the agency's rush to prove itself to new Republican Gov. Rick Scott began even before he took office, as agency leaders sought to meet transition team members' expectations that the agency would create private-sector jobs or raise revenue.
Adding zip lines to state parks was discussed, only to be derailed when officials figured out they weren't nearly as simple to construct, maintain and operate as initially thought. There was also talk of creating "pocket parks" near the state's commercial theme parks.
But the most radical idea of all — allowing private companies to build and operate campgrounds — is what finally gained traction. A list of 56 campgrounds was quickly assembled, even though agency officials hadn't done the requisite homework to ensure the sites were even suitable. Eventually, even the federal government weighed in, warning that campgrounds on some sites would have to meet federal rules because the parkland had been purchased with federal environmental conservation funds.
None of that, however, was clear to the public early last month as the DEP, with Scott's blessing, pressed forward and claimed it had studied the issue thoroughly. After hundreds showed up in Dunedin to protest adding a campground, including RV parking, at Honeymoon Island State Park, the agency finally acquiesced. Scott suggested the public sentiment was too much to overcome, but the DEP is still considering the campgrounds elsewhere in the state.
But now it's clear the plan was half-baked from the start, built more on political rhetoric than on sound environmental or recreational policy. That's a surefire way to guarantee Florida's long-term interests aren't being served. Floridians deserve more from their leaders and government, particularly an agency with a title that includes "environmental protection." Going forward, the DEP can expect much more scrutiny of its private campground plans, and it has no one to blame but itself.