Government in the shadows vs. Paynes Prairie

by Robert “Bob” Simons

The workings of government in Tallahassee have always been messy. The money from the Florida Lottery, voted upon by the people of Florida for the purpose of increasing funding for education, was long ago syphoned off into the murky politics of Tallahassee. Amendment 1, also voted upon by the people of Florida (passing by a 75% to 25 % majority of the people who voted) is suffering the same fate. (The overall funding for the environment in the State’s 2015 budget, in spite of supposed additions from Amendment 1, is $48 million less than it was in the 2014 budget according to Pegeen Hanrahan – Gainesville Sun 7/19/15.) The Water Management Districts, designed to carefully ration Florida’s fresh water supply to ensure a sustainable future for the people of Florida have been downsized and reworked to eliminate the “sustainable” aspect of that idea. And now, it seems, Tallahassee’s attention has turned to Florida’s State Parks.

Some time ago, the people of Florida came up with a plan to help reduce or limit some of the worst aspects of state and local politics by devising a legal system termed “Government in the Sunshine”. This has never been perfect, but it has been helpful. Alas, nothing lasts forever.

But back to State Parks. What is happening? Well, this is pretty hard to determine, due systematic circumventing of the “Sunshine” aspect of governance. No public announcements have been made. No plans have been revealed. No public workshops have been held. Only by listening to recently retired people who have worked for the State Park System for many decades do we learn that there is a concerted effort in Tallahassee to dramatically alter State Park management. First, budgets and numbers of employees have been reduced year after year. Second, there seems to be a plan to privatize much of the management of the parks, as evidenced by more and more management activities are being done by private contractors. Third, the Governor and his proposed appointee, Jon Steverson, have stated the intention to introduce hunting, cattle grazing, and timbering to State Parks to make them more profitable. This last bit is being called multiple use management.

It is this last bit that now seems to be coming to Paynes Prairie. Or is it? No plans have been revealed to the people of Florida, even though private cattle ranchers have recently been asked to consider cattle leases on Paynes Prairie.

Payne’s Prairie has a long history of cattle ranching. It was one of the first cattle ranches in North America, when Spanish colonists first settled here. Later, it was a Seminole cattle ranch under the leadership of the Seminole Chief, King Payne, for whom the prairie is named. Later still, it was Camp Ranch, up until it was purchased by the State and added to the State Parks System as the first State Preserve. After careful study by a distinguished group of scientists soon after this purchase, it was determined that cattle grazing was unwise, if the purpose was to preserve the native fauna, flora, and ecology of the prairie in a healthy condition. The dikes, canals, ditches, and pumps that kept the prairie dry to facilitate grazing were then removed, and the water from Sweetwater Branch has just recently been allowed back onto the prairie.

Should all of this be undone? Should we go back to managing the prairie as a cattle ranch? If so, why did we spend so much public money buying the land, filling in the canals and ditches, removing pumps, removing fences, and establishing trails for visitors? Does this make any sense? Are we going to have any say in this? Are we even going to be informed?

Of course, this isn’t just about Paynes Prairie. This applies to all of Florida’s State Parks. Up until now, Florida’s State Parks have been managed to maintain examples of natural Florida for people to visit and enjoy. Unlike the vast majority of public lands, such as state and national forests, wildlife refuges, and water management district lands, our state parks have not been used for hunting, cattle grazing for profit, and timbering for profit. When lands have been purchased by the various efforts such as Florida Forever, the purchased lands were evaluated, and those that could support timbering, grazing, and hunting were assigned to agencies that practice multiple use management. Lands where hunting, grazing, and timbering would be damaging or inappropriate were assigned to the state park system. True, state parks do not make quite enough money to pay for their own management. They make about 77% of this amount. Hunting, grazing and timbering might add to this, but at what cost. If it damages the value of the parks for ecotourism, it will clearly be a penny wise and pound foolish change. The economic value of our State Park System (voted the best state park system in the country) to Florida’s overall economy is vastly greater than the budgets for park management.

It seems that all of the effort to make Florida’s State Parks the best in the land and uniquely different from other sorts of public lands is about to be undone in the shadowy back rooms in Tallahassee. Or is it? Would the people of Florida really let that happen?

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