Displaying contempt for the public and the environment, Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Environmental Protection has provided only scant notice of its plan to turn over portions of up to 56 state parks to private corporations to build and run campgrounds. As early as next week, the department could decide to move forward on four parks, including Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County. Such radical policy changes affecting some of the state's most prized natural assets deserve far more public vetting and consideration.
It appears that DEP's Division of Recreation and Parks learned a lesson earlier this year from state Sen. John Thrasher. When Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, brashly floated a plan to turn over several state parks to build a Jack Nicklaus golf trail, the former House speaker was forced to retreat quickly in the wake of public outrage. The parks division has made no such pronouncement, launching the bold initiative mostly outside the public's view, not unlike how DEP abruptly scuttled conservation land buys at water management districts and forced out their managers.
Earlier this month, the division won approval, 7-2, from DEP's Acquisition and Restoration Council, a little-noticed advisory group, to expedite the planning process to create more private concessions at the 56 state parks. But this is more than privatizing snack bars, canoe rentals or gift shops. It's about turning over portions of state parks to private enterprises to build and run campgrounds, often in environmentally sensitive locations that are already being heavily utilized by day visitors.
At Honeymoon Island, for example, the plan for 45 campsites on 17.5 acres — including electric and water hookups for RVs in an area now designated for picnicking — would add an estimated 300 more people to the park's daily 5,326 visitors. The plan will likely require the relocation of gopher tortoises, the division's proposal acknowledges, and selective cutting of trees, the building of stormwater basins and an archaeological study to ensure no cultural resources are lost. Wastewater from bathhouses and an RV "dump station" will be carted offsite to a treatment facility.
Good luck finding that plan on the division's website. Scant mention of the scheme can be found there even as public hearings begin next week for Honeymoon Island and three others: De Leon Springs, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs and Fanning Springs. It appears the parks division has issued three times as many press releases or advisories about Florida first lady Ann Scott's literacy tour than it has about its plan to privatize portions of up to 56 state parks.
Generations of Floridians and their tax dollars have built one of the best state park systems in the country. DEP's curiously quiet campaign to abruptly change that system is reckless. The parks division should slow down and make its case to the public that swaths of unspoiled public parks should be turned into commercial profit centers filled with RVs.