Scott's DEP tried to change award-winning park system

Published Oct. 19, 2014

One of the Department of Environmental Protection's most important jobs is operating the state park system.

Florida's 171 parks have won three national awards — the only state system so honored. The parks attract 25 million visitors a year and contribute $1.2 billion to the state's economy — yet the Scott administration repeatedly tried to change them.

First, after Scott met with golf legend Jack Nicklaus, two of his allies in the Legislature (one of them Sen. John Thrasher) sponsored bills to allow Nicklaus to build golf courses with adjoining hotels in five state parks.

The idea was greeted with such widespread public derision that the lawmakers quickly withdrew the bills.

Then came a proposal by the DEP to put campgrounds — including spaces for recreational vehicles — in parks that do not currently allow overnight camping. The idea grew out of a desire by DEP officials to help with Scott's promise to create 700,000 jobs in seven years.

One of the first slated for the experiment was the most popular park in Florida, Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin. Of the 1,000 people who turned out for a Dunedin public hearing, not one person spoke in favor of it.

Scott had publicly supported the plan, but after the hearing he quickly reversed course.

Florida bought a lot of park and preserve land under the Florida Forever program, which devoted $300 million a year since 2001 to protecting environmentally sensitive land. Scott vetoed the entire Florida Forever land-buying budget in his first year in office.

Instead of buying more land, former DEP employees say, they were told that their goal should be to sell some of it. In 2013, the DEP proposed a plan that had never been tried: If the agency could come up with enough surplus land to sell $50 million worth of its parks, preserves and forests, then it could spend that much buying other land.

Across the state, fans of the parks, preserves and forests objected to parcels included on a hastily assembled surplus list. Earlier this year, after nine months of pursuing the surplus plan, the DEP dropped it without having sold a single parcel.

In a news release put out late on a Friday afternoon, officials said the land hunt had been worthwhile for the agency because it "has significantly increased (the staff's) understanding of the land owned by the state."