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State to take control of Silver Springs and remove exotic wildlife

The number of people taking glass bottom boat tours at Silver Springs has dwindled, the operator says. One reason may be that the sparkling white sand on the bottom is smothered in algae.
Published Jan. 24, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Silver Springs, which has spent the past two decades looking like the kitschy Florida roadside attractions of yore, is about to turn into something more sedate and respectable: a state park.

Local and state officials hope the change will also lead to cleaner water conditions in the spring, which has been attracting tourists since before the Civil War.

"We hope it brings back the people whose recent visits were filled with disappointment at the lack of care and the lack of clarity in the water," Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain said.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted Wednesday to allow the company currently leasing the spring from the taxpayers, Festival Fun Parks, to get out of its lease this September instead of waiting until it expires in 2029. Then the state can officially take charge of the property and combine it with nearby Silver River State Park.

In exchange, the California-based company, which owns attractions in 11 states, will spend $4 million renovating Silver Springs so it will look more like a real state park by Oct. 1.

Among the features that have to go, according to state Department of Environmental Protection secretary Herschel Vinyard: the captive animals now on display.

"They've got bears, and two giraffes —- well, one giraffe died," he said. There are also snakes, turtles, sheep, rabbits, donkeys, turkeys, and goats, not to mention a Western cougar.

Why get rid of the captive animals, including what's billed as "the largest bear exhibit of its kind in the world?" Because what bears do in the woods is also what they do in an amusement park, and it's ending up in the spring, Vinyard explained.

Also to be removed: the amusement park rides, including the 40-passenger carousel decorated with endangered wildlife, buildings full of asbestos and some 50-year-old parking lots that send their pollution-laden runoff directly into the springs, he said.

The state bought the spring in 1993 to protect it, then leased it back to the company then operating the amusement park. The current owner says profit margins have dropped from 23.5 percent a year to 5.3 percent as the number of visitors has dwindled. That's why the company wants out of the lease, Vinyard said.

"We believe that turning over the park to the great state of Florida is in the best long-term interests of the park, its guests, the local community and the state," Michele Wischmeyer, vice president of Palace Entertainment, the parent company of Festival Fun Parks, said in an e-mail to the Times. "Silver Springs is a natural wonder, and part of what makes Florida so uniquely special."

She said the company has not yet decided what to do with the animals.

Part of the problem with the dwindling attendance is the spring itself, McClain said. Over the past decade, the sparkling white sand on the bottom that gave the spring its namesake sheen has been smothered by globs of toxic algae. Mats of the brown glop float on the surface, some of it so thick that alligators perch atop it. That's not what the people who buy rides on the glass bottom boats want to see.

The cause of the springs' woes lies with the land around it. About 75 percent of the water gushing out of its 69 vents originates in runoff from a 4-mile radius. By analyzing aerial photos from the past 50 years, scientists in 2006 found that radius has changed from a predominantly natural landscape of forests and swamps into one of homes, stores, roads and farms.

Runoff full of fertilizer and septic waste from homes, farms and other sources carried nitrate pollution into the spring, boosting the level twentyfold over the past century and fueling the thick algae growth.

Meanwhile studies have found that 90 percent fewer fish are swimming in the spring compared with the 1950s. And the spring's flow has dropped from 790 cubic feet per second (or about 510 million gallons per day) before 2000 to 535 cubic feet in the past decade.

The loss of flow has brought a lot of recent attention to Silver Springs' plight, especially after an 80-year-old Austria-born billionaire named Frank Stronach proposed pumping 25 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer for a 25,000-acre cattle ranch with its own slaughterhouse. Stronach has recently reduced his request to 5.3 million gallons. The state has yet to decide on whether to approve his permit.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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