The Case For/Against Florida State Campground Privatization
Editor's Note: The Orlando Sentinel published the following story on Thursday (June 9) in advance of a crucial meeting at which state officials were to consider privatizing campgrounds inside Florida's state parks.
Florida's park system takes in more than 1,000 square miles of the state's most prized woods, springs and beaches; is the nation's only two-time winner of a coveted Gold Medal for excellence; and is a finalist for that prize again this year.
Whether the winning streak continues in years to come could be greatly affected by a state panel in Tallahassee that was to decide Thursday (June 9) whether to approve the concept of privately operated campgrounds inside Florida parks.
More than 50 parks, from the Alafia River to Wekiwa Springs, offer conventional family camping at drive-up sites managed by state rangers, maintenance workers and police, many of whom think of their jobs as a calling.
But the state Division of Recreation and Parks has proposed that as many as 56 parks that don't now offer family camping get new campgrounds "designed, constructed and operated by private entities." In Central Florida, proposed sites include De Leon Springs State Park, Rock Springs Run State Reserve and Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park.
"Park systems are facing huge pressures, and things that were unthinkable a few years are suddenly on the table," said Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association, whose members include professionals, citizens and teachers. "What has to be considered are, what are the trade-offs when you bring private management in? What kind of park experience are they providing? It's no longer your park ranger that's greeting somebody. The companies that do this do it for the bottom line."
Although in line with Gov. Rick Scott's broader agenda, park officials are taking credit for an idea that they say could raise more cash, create jobs and establish thousands of new campsites in a system that now has 3,501 sites, generates more than $15 million in annual revenue and draws 2 million visitors a year.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the park service's parent agency, would not provide a park official to comment on the proposal, which has been pursued inside the agency with relatively little public notice.
A spokeswoman said in e-mails that the proposal does not amount to a trial run for privatizing all camping at state parks; instead, it is an attempt to find an affordable way of providing more sites for campers.
"With the cost of constructing campgrounds in the millions of dollars, the Florida Park Service will ensure all avenues to expand camping are investigated, including private construction and operation," DEP spokeswoman Kristin Lock said.
Though a call earlier this year by a couple of lawmakers to develop golf courses inside state parks was dropped in the face of widespread opposition, reaction to privatizing campgrounds has been cautious.
Early Reactions Vary
The park service's proposal was to be considered by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, whose 11 members are drawn from state environmental agencies or are appointed by those agencies and the governor to oversee management of conservation lands.
Panel member Lynetta Griner of Usher Land and Timber Co. in Chiefland said earlier this week that she was not yet familiar with the issue. Another member, professor Peter Frederick of the University of Florida's department of wildlife ecology and conservation, said he wouldn't share his response until the meeting.
Lane Green, vice chairman of the panel and executive director of Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, said he was inclined to agree with the proposal.
"Based on the 53 parks that are operating with camping now, camping has been a good revenue generator, and it keeps people working in the parks," Green said. "The other alternative could be, if things keep going the way they are going, they'll have to shut down parks or do them with volunteers."
The proposal would give the park service a relatively quick procedure, which would include local public meetings, for establishing privately managed camping in individual parks.
Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon of Florida in Tallahassee, said her group supports the use of private businesses in state parks, such as canoe-rental concessions, if they help cushion parks from budget cuts and are carefully supervised.
But too little has been made public about the campground proposal, she said.
"This is a novel experience for us, and there are probably issues that haven't even been anticipated," Wraithmell said. "It's kind of like we are giving away our ability to discuss those openly — before we even know what they are."
Other conservation activists gave the plan tentative support.
Greg Chelius, director of the Florida office of the Trust for Public Land, said he is confident the state park system would not allow privately developed camping to mimic the typically less-natural experience of a KOA campground.
John Cook, acting Florida director for the Nature Conservancy, said revenue from privately managed campsites should be spent on controlled burns and the control of exotic species inside parks.
"You've got a state budget that's not going to allow a lot of capital outlay for any state agency," said Eleanor Warmack, executive director of the Florida Recreation and Park Association, whose members include professionals, advisory-board members and educators. "To be able to bring in some private partners to develop some additional campgrounds, I think, is probably a unique approach and probably one that deserves a little more exploration."