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To boost state park funds, DEP considers allowing hunting

DEP Secretary Jon Steverson wants the park system to pay for itself.
Published Dec. 9, 2015

To generate more money for the state, Florida's popular state parks could see more than just timber harvesting and cattle-grazing added to the bird-watching, camping, canoeing, kayaking and hiking activities allowed now.

How about hunting?

The boom of gunfire could begin echoing through Florida's award-winning parks system by December under a Department of Environmental Protection plan contained in documents obtained Friday by the Tampa Bay Times.

The documents did not specify which of the state parks might be suitable spots for hunters to shoot deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, otter, bobcat, raccoons, beavers, quail, dove, feral hogs, coyotes and — if the state wildlife commission approves a hunting season this month — bear. A review of the parks that could be targeted "for immediate implementation" would begin within 30 to 60 days if approved.

The news that this is being considered caught environmental advocates by surprise — understandable, given the history involved.

"There has never been hunting in state parks," said Albert Gregory, who spent 35 years working for the state park system, most of it as the chief planner. The reason, he said, is that letting hunters kill the animals in the park's boundaries is "fundamentally incompatible" with the purpose of a state park.

"Hunting is a perfectly legitimate form of outdoor recreation, but it just plain doesn't belong in state parks," Gregory said.

"State parks are supposed to be a place that protects wildlife, not a place to kill them," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club. "Talk about destroying the recreational experience for people."

And Laurie MacDonald of the Defenders of Wildlife said, "Our state lands already have so much pressure on them, there should be some area that's set aside for wildlife."

Although environmental groups may oppose the idea, look for hunters to say hallelujah.

"I think a lot of hunters will say that there are some places in the state park system where you could have hunting and not interfere with the other park activities," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation, an environmental advocacy group in favor of hunting.

Florida's park system is known throughout the country for its beauty and diversity — from the soaring sugar-white dunes of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in the Panhandle to the lush and mysterious depths of the Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park near Gainesville. Florida is the only state that has won a prestigious national award for parks three times.

The parks are more than an environmental jewel — they're also an economic engine. They attract visitors, both from within the state and around the globe. A DEP analysis last year found that about 27 million people visited the parks, generating an economic impact of $2.1 billion.

But that's not enough. In March, Gov. Rick Scott's new appointee to run the DEP, Jon Steverson, told state legislators he wants to make the park system pay for itself. To that end, he said, he wanted to rent out parts of the parks to ranchers to let their cattle graze there, and to timber companies to harvest trees from the forests.

"I want to maximize value for the taxpayers, but also for the environment," he explained.

Steverson made no mention of hunting, which is currently allowed in wildlife management areas run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as state forests run by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

However, Steverson's parks and land staff had put together a presentation called "Optimized Land Management and Cost Recovery" that included not just cattle and timber, but hunting as an "action step."

The presentation also suggests the agency hire outside contractors to handle some of the duties now in the hands of park staff, such as prescribed burning and getting rid of exotic species.

The presentation included a time line that calls for changing park management plans to allow all three activities by Dec. 31. For cattle and timber, by the end of the year the agency would have bid documents ready to send out to ranchers and timber companies.

But for hunting, the document says of the target date of Dec. 31, "Coordinate with FWC and implement where possible."

"This presentation is outdated, and was never finalized or vetted by the secretary or other agency leadership," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said Friday.

However, she said, hunting remains on the table as a possibility.

"No specific activities have been decided upon for inclusion or exclusion at this time," she said.

All three activities run counter to the historic basis for the park system, dating to its beginning in 1935.

For decades, "Florida's lawmakers, governors and administrators understood that a state park was … for the perpetual preservation of unique portions of original, natural Florida," Phillip A. Werndli, who recently retired as chief historian of the Florida Park Service, said in April. In fact, state law said the parks are supposed to "conserve these natural values for all time."

However, in recent years state legislators and other officials have proposed changing the parks to promote other values. In 2011, for instance, then-Sen. John Thrasher proposed legislation to allow golf courses and resort hotels in some parks. His bill was quickly withdrawn amid widespread public mockery. Even Arnold Palmer scoffed at the idea.

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

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