The governor's environmental chief's rejection thousands of acres of free land along the Peace River for a new state park reflects skewed priorities. Herschel Vinyard's view that the property was substandard is an about-face from what the department was saying only three years ago, and it calls into question again the commitment he and Gov. Rick Scott have to protecting and preserving Florida's natural resources.
The offer stemmed from a legal settlement phosphate giant Mosaic had with environmental groups. The Sierra Club, among others, sued to block Mosaic's expansion of mining on the border of Polk and Hardee counties. To clear the way for the mining, Mosaic agreed to donate the Peaceful Horse Ranch to the state, and to throw in $2 million for upkeep. But to environmentalists' surprise, the Department of Environmental Protection has declined. Vinyard told the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman money wasn't the issue, but rather the ranch did not meet DEP's standards for becoming a state park. Talk about a turnaround.
Three years ago, the state added the property to its list of environmentally sensitive land that it wanted to acquire. The 4,100-acre ranch in Southwest Florida sits along 7 miles of the Peace River, and its woods and wetlands are home to bald eagles, wood storks, sandhill cranes and other wildlife. The DEP was eager to get hold of the property, boasting about its "largely pristine" shore and how the location was ideal for kayaking, horseback riding and other outdoor recreational pursuits.
"The combination of all these factors," DEP wrote, "makes the project desirable as a unit of the state park system.
Vinyard now says that DEP park experts have determined the land is unsuitable, a change in thinking that smacks of the Scott administration and some Republican lawmakers to reduce the inventory of state lands. This looks like a philosophical move to limit the reach of parks and environmental buffers sold as a management decision. And it is a loss for public recreation and the state's natural resources. The only upside is that the ranch will revert to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. It should look for the best possible public use.