Saturday, Nov 29, 2014
Columns

A diamond in the rough

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:16 PM

Floridians are truly blessed with a state park system twice named the best in the nation. Our 160 state parks offer 18 million residents and 80 million tourists the opportunity to enjoy the "real Florida."

Created in 1935 with eight parks, our system now boasts 160 parks spread throughout the state on beaches and rivers, on prairies and uplands, on former cattle lands and citrus groves and on wetlands and islands.

Florida's economy has long been dependent on the strength of our tourism, agriculture and housing starts. Over the past six years, as the housing bubble burst and financial institutions collapsed, many families couldn't afford to travel or enjoy traditional tourism destinations. During these tough economic times, our state parks have become an economic engine for nature-based tourism.

In 2006, 19.5 million people visited our state parks. Last year, that number grew to 21.1 million. To put that in perspective, Busch Gardens saw fewer than 5 million visitors last year. Sea World saw 5 million; Universal Studios, 7 million; Epcot, 12 million and the Magic Kingdom, 18 million.

Why do visitors flock to our Gold Medal-winning state parks? Value, beauty, recreational opportunities and quality time with family. They come for birding, boating, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, biking, surfing, tubing, picnicking, swimming, snorkeling and camping.

Florida's park system generated $55 million in revenue last year, created more than 19,000 jobs and had an estimated economic impact of $967 million, despite low entry fees that range from $1-$10 per car. State parks operate on revenues generated, along with an incredibly committed volunteer corp. More than 7,000 volunteers put in more than 1.3 million hours and are the primary reason Florida is the first two-time national Gold Medal winner.

Lands for our state parks were purchased or donated for conservation, preservation and recreation. But tax dollars also have purchased many of our wonderful parks through programs such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. Documentary stamp revenues have funded some land management programs, but operating costs are paid through revenues generated by the parks, along with a heavy reliance on volunteers.

Despite the tremendous success of Florida's park system, the legislature has zero-funded land acquisition the past few years and raided the two trust funds by $122 million and $288 million, effectively starving our parks and deferring maintenance and improvements.

Additionally, there have been misguided efforts to privatize RV camping at several state parks and develop golf courses in others. Thousands of volunteers and park supporters revolted at these ill-conceived plans that threatened the essence of our nature-based recreation.

As chair of the environmental protection committees for many years in the legislature, I visited close to 100 state parks and was honored to be nicknamed the "Queen of State Parks." Park passports were developed from a suggestion I made over a campfire one evening.

When an incredible property became available in the Green Swamp, an area of critical state concern, I urged the state to purchase 5,067 acres that are home to an incredible abundance of wildlife and public recreational opportunities. The land on highway 471 in Polk County -- near the Sumter County line -- was purchased in 2006 from the Overstreet family and opened to the public in January 2007 as Colt Creek, Florida's 160th state park. In 2009, Colt Creek State Park received 10,357 visitors. Last year, it welcomed 15,054 visitors.

Because of cuts to our parks system and raids on the trust funds for land management, the amenities for Colt Creek have been delayed and the beautiful property remains a diamond in the rough. The land management plan has stalled and cabins, camping and a canoe launch remain on our wish list. The park is understaffed, its growth potential stymied.

Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature need to restore the funding source and stop raiding the trust funds to protect the taxpayers' valuable assets and allow our nature-based tourism to continue to flourish at all of our parks.

In the meantime, volunteers and supporters have started Citizen Support Organizations in 79 state parks to help fund programs and events to increase awareness and enjoyment.

The parks are my passion and as my 16 years in the legislature come to a close, I am hosting Swamp Fest at the park nearest and dearest to my heart: Colt Creek State Park, on Saturday, Sept. 29. It is my goal to start a CSO for Colt Creek to recruit supporters to protect and promote it as they do at other more-established parks, like the private support shown for the premier Honeymoon Island State Park.

Let the passion strike you. Become a part of our Citizen Support Organization.

Celebrate the day by bringing the family for a fun activity in one of the most pristine settings in Central Florida.

In addition to horseback riding, swamp buggies, hiking, fishing and birding, we will have bluegrass music and hot dogs. If you can't join us at Colt Creek, consider enjoying the day in a park near you.

The parks belong to you and need your help to remain the crown jewels of our beautiful state.


Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at pdockery@floridavoices.com.
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