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Newspaper: Jobs Push Inspired Florida Park Privatization

August 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Donald Forgione, author of controversial Florida RV park development plan

A controversial plan to allow private contractors to build and operate campsites at state parks in Florida came from a push to create private-industry jobs to help Gov. Rick Scott fulfill a campaign promise, according to internal e-mails exchanged by parks officials earlier this year.

As a result, officials rushed out a hastily drafted list of 56 parks where they believed new campsites could work, including a suggestion to somehow squeeze 120 of them into Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin — a number later scaled back to 45, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Park officials told the public the choices were rooted in their extensive expertise, but internal e-mails show they knew it was a rush job. In a May 9 e-mail, parks planning chief Albert Gregory wrote that the list of parks was “based on a fast assessment that was done to meet a very short deadline. It involved only two questions: (1) is there a large enough area of uplands in the park to build additional campsites; and (2) how many? It didn’t consider anything else.”

But the push for privately run campgrounds in the publicly owned parks — including spaces for recreational vehicles — ran into serious problems. Officials faced not just vocal opposition from fans of the parks, but also landscape issues and legal questions from federal officials.

In the end, none of the proposed plans will be headed to an advisory committee vote this month. Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione conceded in an interview last week that “we definitely need to do our due diligence a little more.”

However, the push for campsites has not been abandoned.

“We need more camping in Florida state parks, period, the end,” said Forgione, who has worked for the service, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection, since 1983.

The whole thing started a month after Scott was elected on a promise to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years.

“Anytime anybody gets a new boss, you think, ‘How can we help our new boss succeed?’ ” explained Forgione.

But to Julie Wraithmell, of Audubon of Florida, using the public parks to create private jobs makes no sense.

“That’s not the park service’s mission,” she said. “It’s providing recreational opportunities for people and protecting our natural resources.”

Nevertheless, that was the message the park service got.

Ideas Abound

“Our new governor has put together a transition team that has been meeting with the leaders of every agency in state government,” Danny Jones, the top parks official in the Panhandle, wrote to his staff on Dec. 6. “They are looking at ways to create new jobs in Florida and to increase the state’s revenue.”

He encouraged the staff to think of ways to do both: “Your ideas may not be as crazy as you think.” For example, he said, “Does your unit plan call for cabins or campgrounds to be built?”

Officials talked about putting zip lines in parks. In a Jan. 5 e-mail, Forgione wrote about taking DEP deputy secretary Bob Ballard to visit a privately run zip line in the Panhandle.

“I can assure you zip lining is a legitimate outdoor recreational experience which has the potential to have a minimal impact on the environment (perhaps even less of an impact than a nature trail),” Forgione wrote. “We had a terrific time and plan on meeting with the management of this and other zip line operators next week to begin the process of soliciting zip line operations in Florida state parks.”

However, Forgione said last week, they soon learned that building zip lines was far more complex than building a nature center, and for now have postponed their plans.

There was even discussion about creating pocket parks — with campgrounds — near attractions such as Walt Disney World and shuttling tourists between the two. The DEP’s senior architect suggested that these parks would could combine “the premium urban campground with the new zip line concept,” but now that, too, has been deferred.

By far the boldest idea was adding campgrounds to parks that did not allow camping — and letting private companies build and operate them, something the state had never done before.

Normally, each new campsite would cost the state an average of $40,000, according to DEP figures. But officials knew they faced unprecedented budget cuts: Layoffs, no money for buying park lands, and little for building facilities. That was another reason to let private companies build and operate them.

List Hastily Assembled

The big question was where to put them. The staff quickly pulled together its list — including Honeymoon Island, the state’s most popular park. The flaws in that hasty list soon became apparent, as they had to scale back what would fit at Honeymoon Island.

In fact, when a DEP biologist walked the proposed campground area at DeLeon Springs State Park, near Deland, he wrote in a July 7 e-mail that he found “a large portion of this area is not the hammock we thought it was, instead it is a wetland.” Worse, he found “by far the dominant plant … is the endangered yellow anise. It is absolutely everywhere … Impacts will be unavoidable.”

Federal officials raised other concerns. The National Park Service pointed out that the state had used money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy some park land — Honeymoon Island, for instance. That meant any new campgrounds there would have to comply with a list of federal rules, it warned.

When word began to spread about what the DEP had planned for Honeymoon Island, DeLeon Springs and two other parks first in line for new campsites, a public outcry began that did not end until Scott announced the camping plan would be pulled for more study.

The governor took that step after hundreds of opponents turned out for a rowdy public hearing in Dunedin, presided over by Gregory, on the Honeymoon Island proposal. Many complained the DEP had been trying to slide the changes through without telling the public in advance.

“We survived,” Gregory e-mailed his boss afterward. “Opponents 1,000, proponents 0. Had to move through presentations fast. No one was listening.”

Editorial: ‘Bad Ideas Have a Way of Resurfacing’

July 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in the TC Palm, a Florida publication.

First, it was the possibility of golf courses being constructed in a handful of state parks, including Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County. The idea was floated, briefly, then shelved during the 2011 Legislature.

The latest incarnation of a bad “parks” idea — a proposal to privatize campground construction and operations at as many as 56 state parks — appears to have suffered a similar fate. At least for the moment.

Unfortunately, bad ideas have a way of resurfacing. Let’s hope the proposal by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection never again sees the light of day.

When the department announced its proposal, public reaction was swift and loud. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, who supported the proposal, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard, asking them to halt the plan. Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County was one of four parks initially considered under the proposal. When state officials hosted a public meeting in Dunedin to discuss the privatization plan, more than 500 people attended. Speaker after speaker denounced the idea, which included building a campground that would allow recreational vehicles.

The ill-fated plan was opposed by Audubon of Florida and other environmental groups and individuals — for legitimate reasons — as well as the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, whose members operate private campgrounds, often near state parks, and feared the proposal would have a negative impact on their businesses.

Last week, under a growing wave of public criticism, state officials relented.

In a letter to Fasano, Herschel wrote: “As a result, the Department (of Environmental Protection), with the full support of Governor Rick Scott, will not recommend going forward with camping at Honeymoon Island State Park and will be evaluating how to proceed at Fanning Springs, DeLeon Springs, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs and any other park that was initially considered for campsite expansions,” the letter says.

Herschel also states he has “asked staff to meet with local communities, state park citizen support organizations and other park stakeholders before formally proposing the addition of amenities or services, including family camping, at any of our state parks.”

If and when Herschel’s staff meets with other park stakeholders, they’ll likely get an earful. Floridians are reluctant — and rightfully so — to put state parks in the hands of private, for-profit companies — whether to construct golf courses or campgrounds.

Florida RV Park Development Plan Gains Attention

June 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Donald Forgione, author of controversial Florida RV park development plan

Visitors to Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, Fla., love picking up shells along the beach, catching fish from the Gulf of Mexico, hiking through the slash pines and spotting the birds soaring overhead. But when the sun goes down, everyone has to leave.

Now the state wants to change that. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has targeted Honeymoon Island as one of the first of 56 parks where state officials want to add new overnight camping sites — including space for recreational vehicles. Honeymoon Island could get up to 45 campsites on 17 1/2 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, under the DEP’s plan, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

In a departure from the way Florida created its award-winning park system, the state’s plan calls for letting private companies bid on designing, building and operating the campgrounds on taxpayer-owned land, said DEP’s Florida Park Service director Donald Forgione.

The new campgrounds will require more than just the sites themselves. They will need roads, rest rooms, bathhouses, playgrounds, electric connections, grills and other amenities, too.

To some fans of Honeymoon Island, letting a private contractor build sites for RVs, bathhouses and other amenities will ruin the park, not improve it.

When Richard Selleg heard what was proposed, “it electrified me,” he said. He compared it to the attempt by legislators to let Jack Nicklaus build golf courses in state parks, scuttled after a public outcry.

“Honeymoon Island is too small,” said Selleg, a land planner who four years ago led a fight to block plans for a boat ramp. “To me, the beach is fine and the wildlife habitat is a drawing card for why people go out there. … I don’t want to see a further deterioration of it.”

The Florida Native Plant Society, in its recent newsletter, encouraged members to attend a public hearing next month to tell DEP officials there’s a difference between “low-impact tent camping or 30-foot-long RVs with noisy generators, electrical hookups and blaring TVs that disturb wildlife.”

The society’s newsletter took a dim view of the idea of letting a private company operate the campground: “Private concessionaires may say they care about the environment, but their first priority will be to push for what makes the most money, and the state has a financial incentive to do so as well.”

That worries Audubon of Florida, too, said Julie Wraithmell. “Everybody knows a private contractor is going to be looking at their bottom line” instead of what’s best for the public, she said.

But Forgione, who began his career as a park ranger in 1984, contended that private contractors will be just as concerned about the parks as state officials would be.

“The key to this is the wholesomeness and the genuineness of our product and their product,” Forgione said. “They don’t want to taint our brand. They need it.”

The idea of privatizing state and national parks is fairly new, but it’s been endorsed by such pundits as Glenn Beck, who last year said, “I don’t know why this doesn’t make sense to more people.”

Honeymoon Island’s lack of campsites is not uncommon. Forgione said about two-thirds of Florida’s 160 state parks have no camping.

The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid, Forgione said. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP — but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.

“We anticipate it working like this: The private sector designs, builds and operates the campground, including collecting the overnight fees,” he said. “Then we get a percentage of their revenue.”

He said he had no estimate of how much that might yield but DEP would likely use it to make the state park system more self-sufficient.

DEP pitched its idea — and the list of 56 parks where campgrounds could be built — at a June 10 meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC), an advisory committee made up of state officials and private citizens that reviews state land matters.

To ARC member Vickie Larson, the whole proposal seemed hastily thrown together and was offered as an all-or-nothing vote rather than breaking the list down to vote on each park. She voted against it.

“Many of the parks on that list are not suitable for expanding the camping,” she said, naming Ichetucknee Springs State Park as an example. “We didn’t really get much detailed information.” It passed 7-2.

The idea of letting private companies build and operate the campgrounds, she said, was mentioned but was not part of the vote.

Now DEP is pushing ahead with rapidly scheduled public hearings not just for Honeymoon Island but also for three other parks that are tops on its list: De Leon Springs State Park, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park. The hearings on Honeymoon Island, Wakulla Springs and DeLeon Springs are July 5, while Fanning Springs is on July 6.

Both Larson and Audubon’s Wraithmell said this push is part of an overall initiative of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration regarding the use of state lands, which Wraithmell described as “treating our resources as commodities” regardless of whether it’s good for the parks or the public.

But Forgioni contended that expanding camping allows more people to enjoy the park system and soak up natural Florida.

“Camping and state parks go together,” he said, “like graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.”

To read the entire story and see a list of the proposed state parks where campgrounds could be built click here.

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