For all the hoopla over Florida tourism, one number didn't get much notice earlier this month: Record attendance at state parks. The state Department of Environmental Protection announced that in 2012-13, more than 21.6 million visitors enjoyed state parks — 164,341 more than the record set four years earlier. The results point to the incredible resources Florida taxpayers have developed over the past century by investing in green and public spaces, but also the need to prepare for the next century. As Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet contemplate selling conservation lands in coming months under a new state law, they should consider how the state will build and enhance its park system for future generations.
There is another way to look at the extraordinary number of people who took advantage of state parks last year: On average, each of Florida's 160 parks saw nearly 370 people each day. But that fails to appreciate the full diversity of Florida's state park system, from an urban oasis like Alfred B. Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee to a historic site like Gamble Plantation in Ellenton; from the rustic wonder of Paynes Prairie Preserve in Micanopy to an array of beachfront splendors such as Honeymoon Island in Dunedin. Honeymoon Island, for the seventh straight year, grabbed the title of most popular state park, logging more than 1 million visitors.
Last month, the Department of Environment Protection wrapped up the public hearings on its proposed list of so-called surplus conservation lands now under consideration for sale. Already, more than 50 sites have been pulled from the 169 sites the department first identified as ripe for review because it became clear they weren't "surplus."
The goal — as set by the 2013 Legislature — is to find at least $50 million worth of property that can be sold to buy more significant conservation land. But many experts think it won't be possible to identify anywhere near that dollar value if the state is honest about the future needs of a growing population and long-term concerns about groundwater quality.
Last year's state park visitor numbers should also weigh heavily on the governor and other state officials. No land should go on the block that may soon be needed for a new state park to serve a burgeoning state population. They owe it to future generations to pay the state's investment forward.