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  1. Opinion

Column: Governor, lay off our state parks

Published Jul. 23, 2015

I have a message for Gov. Rick Scott on behalf of the millions of Floridians and tourists who enjoy our award-winning state parks: Lay off them. They are neither for profit nor plunder.

Few truly believed that you would be an environmental leader, like most of your predecessors both Republican and Democrat, but we are shocked by the extent to which you have decimated the Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts.

You've ignored the wishes of 4.2 million voters — 75 percent of those who voted in 2014 — by not properly funding conservation and preservation programs. You seem to miss the connection between our natural resources and tourism and business relocations. Did you ever stop to think that our beaches, rivers, lakes and state parks are the reason people come to Florida?

You brag about the state's natural beauty and claim you are responsible for it. You're not. Your actions have been detrimental and destructive. Reverse course before the damage is irreversible.

Let's review: You abolished the Department of Community Affairs, the agency responsible for growth management decisions, and you slashed water management district budgets while water supply and water quality issues desperately need funding.

Your choice for DEP secretary was a shipyard executive whose goal was to speed up permitting with little regard to environmental impacts. He also decided to privatize our state parks. It started with campgrounds and golf courses. Only after thousands of angry citizens protested your efforts to meddle with our award-winning park system did you back off.

Apparently you only sidelined your plan until after your re-election. Despite starving the Florida Forever program, you convinced an environmentalist to appear with you for a campaign photo op. This might have fooled some voters into believing that you enjoyed the same support from the environmental community as former Govs. Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. You don't.

The reality is they are so frustrated that they had to resort to a costly constitutional amendment to fight for the preservation of our natural resources.

Your attempt to look supportive of our parks by playing Ranger Rick in full uniform and hat may have made for amusing media coverage but did not disguise your plotting against our parks.

Florida's parks have been nationally recognized three times — in 1999, 2005 and 2013 — receiving the gold medal as the best park system. No other state has won three times — a testament to our parks and our volunteers.

The parks have been underfunded for years, first because of the recession and then because of your poor leadership. Thousands of volunteers give their time to work in our understaffed parks, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. They also raise millions in private funds to provide boardwalks, trails, observation towers and decks.

What was their reward? More regulations for citizen support organizations and onerous reporting requirements even though they don't use the first tax dollar.

Morale of park volunteers is almost as low as that of DEP employees. Many scientists have been forced out and longtime environmental experts have left. Positions have been slashed. DEP employees trying to keep their jobs remain mum.

It got so bad that three former state park directors wrote a letter entitled, "Florida's State Parks at Risk." They warned of efforts to introduce incompatible agricultural uses in the parks. Floridians took notice and fought back.

But the idea didn't die — it just took a nap. DEP was recently forced to release a draft strategic plan through a public records request. Its latest effort is disguised as a "cost recovery" plan.

Let's be clear about the "costs" of our parks. Our 170 state parks are an economic engine creating 29,300 jobs and pumping nearly $2.1 billion into our communities.

The park budget is $80 million. Fees collected at the parks — $60 million — pay about 75 percent of operating costs. It would take 20 cents from each of our 100 million tourists to fund the rest.

Gov. Scott, you want to do exactly what the three former park directors warned against. Here's your plan:

Exploit the natural resources through cattle grazing, timbering and other incompatible uses. Starve the parks by eliminating more staff and funding.

Then, criticize management when parks' facilities and resources deteriorate to justify the need to privatize the state park system.

There are plenty of lands appropriate for hunting, cattle and timbering -— state parks are not. They were not intended to be profit centers for your cronies — especially at taxpayer expense. So, governor, lay off our state parks.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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