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Florida could allow timber harvesting at two parks, including Sarasota's Myakka State Park

Timber harvesting might soon be coming to Myakka River State Park.   [Times files]
Timber harvesting might soon be coming to Myakka River State Park. [Times files]
Published Mar. 1, 2017

Two years after officials first talked of boosting the moneymaking efforts of the state park system, a pair of parks are finally going to try it.

State officials have proposed allowing timber harvesting in one, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota. They have proposed allowing timber harvesting and cattle grazing in another, Savannas Preserve State Park in Port St. Lucie.

In each case, a draft management plan for the park said those moneymaking uses have now been found to be "compatible with the park's primary purpose of resource-based outdoor recreation and conservation."

The two parks are slated to hold public hearings on the proposed changes this week. The Savannas Preserve hearing is tonight, and the Myakka River one is Thursday night.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman said if timber harvesting and cattle grazing are approved, those activities would occur on only a limited basis.

"The Florida Park Service is committed to protecting the lands entrusted to us and will only conduct these activities when they are part of a restoration or maintenance project for the park," said DEP communications director Lauren Engel. "For example, timber management for thinning or restoration purposes, vegetation removal for ecosystem health and fire control, or cattle grazing in a small overgrown pasture to assist with control of invasive plant species."

In addition to timber harvesting, the Myakka plan also calls for allowing such commercial activities as the harvesting of stumps and palm or palmetto fronds. The Savannas Preserve plan calls for allowing beekeepers to lease park land for their hives and charging developers to move gopher tortoises to the park so they can build on tortoise habitat.

So far no plans call for allowing hunting, another change pushed by former DEP secretary Jon Steverson during his two years in charge. But environmental advocates are convinced hunting and other potentially damaging uses will be next.

What's been proposed "is about establishing a precedent," said Jono Miller, a leader of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club who has led opposition to the Myakka River plan. "If you can sell the resources of the state park, then later on, you can expand that to a lot of other things."

Florida's state parks have won national awards three times, the best record of any state. They're also a major tourist attraction. A DEP study found that about 27 million people visited the parks each year, generating an economic impact of $2.1 billion.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have repeatedly tried to add moneymaking amenities such as golf courses and hotels, although that violates the way the parks were set up in 1935.

"State parks in Florida have not been designed to make money," Florida's first state parks director, Lewis Scoggin, said in 1941. "They have been designed to give something to the people of Florida and to our guests that money cannot buy."

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Shortly after Scott tapped Steverson to head the DEP, which oversees the Florida Park Service, the new secretary told a state Senate committee the parks cover only 77 percent of their expenses. He wanted to boost that to 100 percent so they could be self-sustaining.

"We can do a lot to expand the utilization of this land to support other areas of the DEP mission," he contended in March 2015. "I want to maximize value for the taxpayers, but also for the environment."

This latest effort comes at a time when the park system has no leader. Longtime director Donald Forgione was demoted in December and now oversees only one park, not all 171. His personnel file contains no memo explaining his demotion.

Forgione was replaced by former Public Service Commission member Lisa Edgar, who was blasted by critics for frequently siding with utility companies. Edgar did not even fill out an application for the job before being hired, according to DEP records.

But she abruptly resigned last week, citing "an immediate family emergency."

Steverson himself resigned in January to take a job with a law firm that does contract work for the DEP.

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

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