Since then, the DEP and park system have made a “175-degree turn."
What a difference a year makes.
In February 2017, many were at loggerheads with the state Department of Environmental Protection over a “unit management plan” for Myakka River State Park. Such plans are intended to set policies for the care of natural resources, establish management guidelines and provide opportunities for public access.
The DEP and leaders of the Florida State Parks System were proposing, with little local input or knowledge, so-called consumptive uses in the 37,000 park, which is the centerpiece of an even larger area of preserves. Together those 110,000 acres of protected land form a public and environmental asset of unparalleled value.
Tensions first arose in 2015, when the DEP quietly put the cart before the horse — drafting a “request for proposal” for cattle grazing at the park. The RFP came before the unit-management plan was updated (it’s still not complete) and the pros and cons of grazing were debated. Worse, it took a public-records demand by a former department employee to make the document public, stoking distrust of the department’s intentions.
In December 2015, state officials said they did “not intend to move forward” with cattle grazing on 6,630 acres of the park “at this time.” Although the decision was qualified by the “at this time” escape clause, it was a victory for environmentalists and other park advocates. Nevertheless, the process raised suspicions, which proved to be warranted.
Through February 2017, drafts of the plan included proposals for the harvesting of timber, stumps and green palm fronds — which some felt were aimed at generating revenue rather than responsibly managing the park’s natural resources.
What’s more, the DEP presented drafts of the plan in top-down fashion, inviting the public to meetings but refusing to provide people the opportunity to address the plan in the spirit of a true public hearing.
Fortunately, in May 2017, Noah Valenstein was appointed secretary of the DEP by Gov. Rick Scott.
Since then, the DEP and park system have made what some call a “175-degree turn."
Valenstein has emphasized the need for DEP officials to engage communities and local leaders. As a practical matter, Valenstein said, the DEP will “start addressing our unit management plans for state parks in a way that allows all partners to engage.”
The Myakka plan remains incomplete, but Miller said Valenstein’s philosophy — and the hiring of Eric Draper, former director of Audubon Florida, as director of the parks system — has been evident. Drafts of the plan are substantially improved, Miller said, and the DEP has advised that it will share them earlier and more readily with interested parties.
Whether the momentum behind this new approach is sustained remains to be seen. But the changes seems to be dramatic and we give Valenstein credit for leading this welcome turnaround.
This editorial first appeared in Sarasota Herald Tribue, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.