Three months after Gov. Rick Scott named Jon Steverson the new secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Steverson hired a man with nearly zero environmental experience to serve as one of his top administrators.
Before getting the $125,000-a-year job as deputy secretary in charge of state lands and parks, Gary F. Clark had no prior experience working for DEP or for any other state agency, much less managing Florida's state park system.
He holds a bachelor's degree in business administration, not biology, from an online university. He has been vice president of a rural electrical co-operative, director of a bank, co-owner of a dozen Subway sandwich shops, a college trustee and chairman of the Washington County School Board. He has seldom traveled far from his Panhandle hometown of Chipley (population: 3,600).
But Clark, 47, does own and operate what's billed as "Northwest Florida's premier bobwhite quail hunting preserve."
"He must have been brought in to oversee the introduction of hunting to the state parks," said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who heads up the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that's frequently critical of the agency.
In announcing Clark's hiring this year, Steverson did not mention his new employee's hunting expertise.
"Gary brings a broad range of management experience, leadership skills and investment expertise to this position," Steverson said in April. "He will be a tremendous asset to the state and department."
Steverson and Clark were not made available for comment by the DEP. However, a statement released Wednesday by Steverson in response to the Times' questions praised Clark's leadership abilities and said he "is dedicated to the protection of our state parks and lands."
Steverson has made headlines over his proposal to make the state parks pay for themselves by opening them up to such activities as timber harvesting, cattle grazing and hunting.
He first announced his intentions in March in testimony to a legislative committee, in which he talked about bringing in timber harvesting and cattle grazing to help the parks boost their income. The parks are covering 77 percent of their expenses, he said then, but he wants that to be 100 percent.
Steverson did not mention hunting then, but internal DEP documents showed this summer that it was under consideration. This month, the Times reported on a checklist that park planners were required to use that included hunting as one activity that must be considered in reviewing every park, no matter where the location or how small — even Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin and Ybor City Museum State Park.
At a Nov. 18 Senate committee meeting, Steverson for the first time revealed what he has in mind regarding hunting. Larger parks — 30,000 acres, 20,000 acres — might benefit from managed hunts of animals like feral hogs for perhaps two weekends a year, as long as they don't harm the visitor experience.
The list of parks larger than 20,000 acres includes Crystal River Preserve State Park in Citrus County, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Collier County and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.
Steverson did not offer details on how limited hog hunting at those parks would help make them self-sufficient. He did promise that "no one will be firing high-powered rifles on Honeymoon Island or setting up tree stands in downtown Ybor City."
If hunting is introduced to state parks, Clark's hiring makes perfect sense, say former DEP employees who have been critical of Steverson's attempt to squeeze more money out of the parks.
Clark co-owns Hard Labor Creek Shooting Sports Inc., a 2,600-acre pine plantation. According to a recent profile in the Jackson County Floridan, Clark helps oversee the plantation's land management and hunting operations. In a 2013 article about the plantation on a hunting and fishing website, Mark S. "Corky" Decker called Clark "probably the best quail guide in the South."
In other words, he's "eminently qualified" to implement Steverson's plans for timber harvesting and hunting in the state parks, said Albert Gregory, a DEP retiree who worked for the park system for three decades — and who opposes Steverson's changes.
Documentary filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, a friend of Clark's for years, took a less critical view: "If Gary follows his love for the outdoors and conservation, he will be a great asset in protecting the state lands of Florida."
Clark and Steverson met two years ago, while they were both with the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Clark, an appointee of Gov. Scott, served on the board. Steverson was executive director.
When Steverson hired Clark for the deputy director spot in March, the DEP staff was told the two men were friends, said Marianne Gengenbach, who until September worked in DEP's division of state lands as bureau chief of the office of environmental services.
Steverson, in his application to be DEP secretary, listed as a reference one person who also showed up on Clark's application to be appointed to the water district board: Public Service Commission member Jimmy Patronis, a former state representative who was widely praised by industry lobbyists and reviled by environmental activists for his annual effort to repeal as many DEP regulations as he could.
"He is a problem solver," Patronis said of Clark in an email last week. "Gary has incredible patience to work with folks at all levels. I have always found him to be honest, quick to respond."
Clark replaced Katy Fenton, who spent nearly a decade rising through the ranks of DEP to the deputy secretary position. A month after Steverson's appointment, she resigned to take a job with a private tech company.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.