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Poll: To boost state park revenue, hike fees or let cattle in

Imagine cattle grazing at state parks as a way for the entities to pay for themselves. Forty-two percent of poll respondents did.
Imagine cattle grazing at state parks as a way for the entities to pay for themselves. Forty-two percent of poll respondents did.
Published Dec. 21, 2015

Nearly 40 percent of Tampa Bay residents say those who use state parks are the ones who should pay to make them more profitable, according to a poll of 605 registered voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, 42 percent say the state could boost revenue by leasing portions of parks to ranchers for cattle grazing, according to the Dec. 3-10 Tampa Bay Times/WTSP 10News poll.

That lack of consensus reflects the difficulty the state has had in achieving one of Gov. Rick Scott's top priorities — to make state parks pay for themselves.

None of the options that state officials discussed drew a majority of support in the poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. But it was clear that the least popular option was allowing timber companies to harvest trees from the parks. That drew support from only 17 percent.

"It's supposed to be a state park — it's supposed to be for people," said Jim Miracle, 72, of St. Petersburg. "It's not supposed to be for big business."

Although raising fees was supported by 39 percent of those polled, most rejected it.

"That's a kind of a sad option," said Susan Foote, 60, of Dunedin. "Maybe the parks shouldn't be made to pay for themselves."

Florida's park fees have been kept very low for years — so low that the owners of nearby private campgrounds have complained about the competition, according to former state park system official Dana Bryan, who recently retired from the Department of Environmental Protection.

It costs as little $16 a night to camp in some parks and, in some places, cabin rentals are as low as $30 per night. Florida's park managers have frequently discussed raising those fees, Bryan said, but nearly every time the idea was shot down by DEP management or the governor's office.

"They were very reluctant to even hear the proposals," Bryan said. The main complaint seemed to be the timing: "It's either just before (the legislative) session or just before an election." The most recent rejection occurred under Scott, he said.

Florida's state parks attract about 27 million people every year, generating an economic impact of $2.1 billion. But the money the parks bring in covers only 80 percent of the cost of operating them.

After Scott appointed Jon Steverson as the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection a year ago, Steverson made it his goal to make the park system self-sufficient.

This year, he unveiled plans to test timber harvesting and cattle grazing as moneymaking alternatives to the hiking, canoeing, camping and other usual park activities.

After the Times revealed DEP documents showing that hunting was also under consideration, Steverson acknowledged to legislators last month that he's exploring that as well.

He said he's considering letting hunters into parks that are more than 20,000 acres. That would include such popular ones as Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, Crystal River Preserve State Park in Citrus County and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville.

Despite that limitation, though, DEP park planners have been given a form to use when evaluating each park that requires them to declare whether hunting would work there. If it wouldn't, they have to explain why.

Copies of forms filled out so far this year, obtained by the Times, say hunting won't work in the parks under consideration.

"Does not further resource management goals," wrote the reviewer for Suwannee River State Park in Central Florida. "The park does not contain sufficient acreage or wildlife populations," wrote the reviewer of St. Andrews State Park in the Panhandle. Others cited the proximity to urban areas and the risk of accidentally shooting other park visitors or endangered species.

Only one reviewer, commenting on 620-acre Lake Griffin State Park near Leesburg, said hunting might be feasible there: "Feral hogs, cats, coyotes and armadillos. Bears. No sightings of deer in more than 20 years."

In a statement issued this month, DEP officials promised that any changes in state parks would be carefully reviewed and subjected to public scrutiny before going into effect, particularly in regards to hunting.

Under Scott, DEP's management of state lands has repeatedly drawn protests from the public.

In 2011, Scott personally pulled the plug on a plan to add campgrounds at Honeymoon Island after 1,000 people showed up at a public hearing to object.

A proposal that same year to allow Jack Nicklaus to build golf courses and hotels in state parks drew such widespread criticism — including from Arnold Palmer — that it was withdrawn.

Another initiative, to sell surplus state land, was so unpopular the DEP ended the effort without selling a single acre.

Meanwhile, two directors of the DEP's state lands division quit in the past two years amid questions about their efforts squeeze more money out of public property.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.