Last fall, the Division of Environmental Protection, which runs Florida’s state parks, prepared a plan that would have closed 53 of them, including Washington Oaks Garden and Bulow Plantation ruins in Flagler County, to save money. Park supporters around the state and Florida Audubon mobilized. By the time Gov. Rick Scott announced his budget, closing parks was no longer in the works.
During the session, Sen. John Thrasher, who represents Flagler County, introduced a bill called the “Jack Nicklaus Trail.” Thrasher was proposing to contract with Jack Nicklaus to build at least five golf courses in state parks, along with hotels that would be exempt from local regulations, and with borrowed money that would be repaid presumably from park profits. The proposal proved extreme even for the Republican-dominated Legislature. It failed.
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Efforts to privatize Florida’s public parks, if only in segments, continue.
The Division of Environmental Protection is proposing to partially privatize 56 parks, including Washington Oaks Garden State Park and Faver-Dykes State Park. The proposal is being submitted to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council next Friday (June 10) as an expansion of camping and RV opportunities at those sites. But the camping and RV sites would be built and operated by private companies.
The council is an 11-member panel with representatives from five state agencies who rank the state’s environmentally sensitive land-acquisition priorities through the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever has essentially lost its funding, leaving the council to focus on its other mission: reviewing management plans for state parks and conservation lands.
Opening parks up to camping and RV sites falls under park management plans, which would have to be amended to enable the change. Those plans, called the “unit management plan,” are reworked every 10 years, with public hearings and involvement. Washington Oaks’ 10-year plan is about two years away from just such a review. DEP is asking the council to accelerate the process, though it would also make provisions for a public “meeting” at each affected park. The DEP’s proposal does not specify a formal public hearing, though that may be a matter of semantics.
“The new facilities will be designed, constructed and operated by private entities selected through the department’s procedures for soliciting and contracting state park concession services,” the DEP’s summary proposal reads. “The Department will retain full control over all aspects of planning, design, construction and operation of the new facilities to ensure consistency with the mission and quality standards of the state park system. This system-wide expansion of camping opportunities will increase the level of public benefits state parks provide, enhance the economic benefits of state parks, create jobs, and move the state park system closer to economic self-sufficiency.”
The DEP will seek out bids from private industry for the 56 parks it has identified. “Based on the responses, the department will select parks to receive further consideration for new development,” the proposal reads.
“This is only the first step in examining the potential for increasing family camping opportunities,” DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email to The Current’s Bruce Richie, who first reported the DEP’s plan. “The Florida Park Service has not yet conducted detailed site analyses and will go through the necessary steps to determine if, where and how much camping is appropriate.”
The DEP is framing the proposal as an expansion of “family camping,” which resonates positively with park lovers—and draws little opposition from park advocates. But the essential change behind the proposal is its privatization aspects, as the park system would not be running the new operations, which could become a first step toward further privatization—a move being considered in other states, notably in Arizona.
Bob Bouck, president of the Friends of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, had not heard of DEP’s plan to launch privatized camping.
“When we had the information about the potential closing of parks,” Bouck said, referring to last fall’s discussions, “our board of directors met to see what we could do to prevent any potential future closings. We noted that camping was a safeguard let’s say, and we discussed the potential for camping at Washington Oaks.”
Whatever the plan, it would have to carefully weigh Washington Oaks’ purpose as a gardens park—there are just six such gardens parks in the state—against the impact of camping. “When the procedure begins for the new unit management plan,” Bouck said of the decennial exercise, “there’ll be hearings of park volunteers, park staff, community, those interested, etcetera. We as the Friends of Washington Oaks would propose that camping be discussed and included for a feasibility study. Internally we have talked about a cabin-type camping experience as opposed to RV sites. Lots of study, lots of information, would have to be gathered.”
There are 30 camping and RV sites at Faver-Dykes, which is on DEP’s list of parks proposed for expansion into camping, the difference being that DEP would turn the Faver-Dykes operation over to a private concern.