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Email insights: DEP sets record straight on hunting, privatizing Florida State Parks

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Florida State Parks have come under fire recently, and the Department of Environmental Protection feels it’s time to “set the record straight.”

A new DEP email takes exception with several recent media accounts, each inaccurately “perpetuated misconceptions” about the future of Florida State Parks.

“As these stories are being driven by false allegations based on incomplete information that does not present a complete or accurate picture of the efforts of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Park Service,” the email says.

Among the rumors DEP Secretary Jon Steverson dispelled during his recent Senate testimony: Florida parks are not for sale; he is not looking to “surplus parks,” commercialize them or “ruin any visitor’s experience.”

At particular issue is the claim, made by Craig Pittman in the Tampa Bay Times, who wrote that “every Florida State Park is being considered as a potential killing field” with a proposal to allow hunting at all 174 state parks and trails.

This, Steverson says in the email, is blatantly untrue.

“There are currently no proposals to open any additional parks to hunting,” he writes. “Further, DEP does not have a blanket policy to implement hunting, nor any other activity, across all of Florida’s 174 state parks, trails, and historic sites.”

For hunting – or any activity, for that matter – to be even considered in any state-run property, it must be included in the parks unit management plan, the governing document guiding management of each Park. New activities, which include hunting, must go through a thorough vetting process that involves staff, planners, and the public before any such action is implemented.

Over the past quarter-century, limited hunting has been permitted by the Florida Park Service in unit management plans for three locations – Rock Springs Run State Preserve, Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve and the Marshall Swamp Property of the Cross Florida Greenway.

The decision to allow hunting would certainly not be based on “whether hunters could find something to shoot there,” as Pittman writes.

Steverson stresses that any possibility of adding hunting to a particular management plan would first have to go through a gauntlet of internal resource managers, park planners, public input, and an advisory committee of local elected officials, experts, and other stakeholders. Any prospective hunt must be deemed appropriate, go through the appropriate agency, and be designed for safety and minimal impact to visitors and resources.

As for the assertion that the DEP is pursuing “incompatible” or previously banned activities, the Secretary points out that for years, park staff have successfully implemented efficient resource management tools  – especially timber practices used to restore and manage lands in 34 state parks since 2005.

Steverson added that timber thinning provides an essential public service by reducing the chances (and severity) of wildfires, as well as promoting growth of remaining trees and native plants.

Also, Steverson addresses accusations the DEP is looking to “privatize” parks. Suggestions that the state is looking to privatize public parks are simply not supported by the overall process of updating unit management plans. Park planners must apply a standardized checklist that identifies potential activities or additional facilities, he says.

“This checklist is designed to serve as a conversation starter that is used in the very first steps of the park-planning process,” he writes. “This list includes nearly 60 potential recreational, resource management and other activities, ranging from boat ramps, kayaking and trails to camping or hunting. However, none of the activities or facilities listed are required to be implemented, or even further evaluated.”

Privatizing is not simply letting corporations have their way with public land.

As required by Florida law, each prospective activity (or change in activities) must be judged on appropriateness, evaluated by Park planners and staff, and based on individual needs and attributes of the park. Again, the process includes numerous opportunities for public review and comment.

Florida parks hold a special role in the state – and are some of the best in the nation. Steverson concludes with a vow that he and his department are committed to good land stewardship.

“The Florida Park Service will always be the ones to manage the lands entrusted to us, both for recreation and protection purposes,” he says. “The department has no intention of privatizing parks.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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