A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Taylor Swift • 1989 Tour • Tampa • Halloween • 2015

I know I’m expected to write about important environmental and political issues, but when the biggest solo pop star since Elvis plays a gig (on Halloween!) just 54 miles away, it is hard to resist some cultural commentary.

This is Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour – so named for her birth year and most current release – and Raymond James stadium in Tampa on Halloween was the last U.S. stop before taking her (two dozen?) conspicuously-labeled semi trucks to Singapore.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Response to Commissioner Caragiulo regarding Hunting

On September 2, 2015 the Sarasota Herald Tribune ran a guest column written by County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who apparently advocates recreational hunting in some, yet un-named, county preserves or reserves. 

His column may or may not have been in response to my guest column, which ran on August 21st.  It should be noted that neither of us got to choose our own headline.  

Rather initiate some sort of back-and-forth in the newspaper, I wrote to Commissioner Caragiulo directly and provided him with an annotated critique of his column, which appears below -- my comments are in red:



A public meeting notice published in the Sept. 14, 1949, Herald-Tribune asked: “Attention all hunters — would you like more hunting grounds in Sarasota County?” Frank Meyer’s Nov. 8, 1973, column, “Sarasota Hunting Areas Grow Smaller Each Year” includes this quote from a citizen: “The problem is finding a place to shoot, every year there are more and more houses.”  (Luckily, things have improved since ’49 and ’73 -- there are now 7,295 more acres of public hunting land in Sarasota County than there were in 1973. Over 4/5 of Myakka State Forest (which didn’t exist in ’73) and an area larger than the Pinelands Reserve is open to hunting.) Yes indeed — more development, more roads and more people. (Yes, more people who have moved here without a hunting tradition – people for whom wildlife viewing is a more popular way of enjoying and connecting to the outdoors than hunting).
It was in response to that reality that previous county commissions, with the support of the electorate, (or in other cases now under discussion, the electorate with the support of county commissions) engaged in a tremendous effort to acquire lands for preservation and conservation.
I love that nearly one-third of the total land area in Sarasota County is made up of conservation lands, with more than 47,000 acres owned by the county and paid for by county taxpayers. It is an essential part of our quality of life. Let’s preserve more.
These natural lands provide us the opportunity to enjoy many diverse outdoor activities. Unfortunately, some people hotly disapprove of some (proposed)activities. (Are there any current activities that people hotly disapprove of?)
One (the only?) primary example is hunting. I am one of about 242,000 hunters in Florida. (This 2011 figure, while accurate, masks two facts: The number of hunters is remaining constant as the state grows [smaller percentage each year]* and that hunters are probably somewhere around one percent of the Sarasota population. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but it does suggest their recreational desires should be placed in context with those of the rest of the community since there is a certain zero sum aspect to managing land for hunting and we have limited dollars to spend on recreation.) On occasion, I get critical responses from people when they learn that as well as being a conservationist, I hunt. All of the animals I shoot end up in the same place: my freezer.
Emotion aside, hunting is as essential a component of conservation and management as is the clearing away of undergrowth to prevent forest fires. (No evidence is presented in this piece that management hunting per se is required – it is one management tool that can be used in certain situations, and one that has been used on ESLPP land.) [Technical note: we don’t reduce “undergrowth” to prevent fires, we do it to reduce the severity of fires and encourage fire-dependent vegetation.] Such management may include native and non-native species and this management is critical to thriving conservation lands. (What is your source for hunting being critical to thriving conservation lands?)
Don’t believe me? Ask the Sierra Club. It is quite specific about management practices as stated in its position on hunting: "Acceptable (not necessarily desirable in the Club’s eyes, but acceptable) management approaches include (so other alternative techniques apparently exist) both regulated periodic hunting and fishing when 1. based on sufficient scientifically valid biological data and 2.when consistent with all other management purposes and 3. when necessary [for] total protection of particular species or populations." (This is not a menu – all three conditions have to be met to please the Sierra Club. The County will probably have a tough time meeting these three conditions for species other than feral hogs.) I agree totally with this philosophy. The club is opposed to hunting in parks; this is also a policy I agree with. (Some cognitive dissonance here – you oppose hunting in parks, but not preserves and reserves? I suspect the general public is laboring under the impression that preserves and reserves are to be afforded greater protection than parks.)
So let’s look at the reasons behind our county conservation lands. Some were purchased for water, some for recreation, some for county services and some specifically to ensure their delicate habitats remain undeveloped. In the past few days much has been said regarding lands purchased subsequent to the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program approved by voters in a 1999 referendum. This program was expanded in 2005 to include neighborhood parkland. The total amount of land purchased under that program is approximately 18,000 acres, and properties need not be designated “Environmentally Sensitive” to be considered for acquisition. (All ESLPP lands DO need to meet the environmentally sensitive lands test, recognizing that some acquisitions require purchase of other land uses.) Still, these lands are only a portion of our total conservation land inventory. (ARRGH! The commission's failure/inability to identify which other lands it thinks might be appropriate combined with its feigned ignorance regarding the meaning of non-consumptive as used professionally and technically by FWC and USF&WS continues to be the greatest weakness in the county’s current course. The Commission seems willing to rule out county parks [which could easily have been done in the exemption] so that leaves preserves and reserves. The only county land greater than 300 acres not encumbered by the “non-consumptive” mandate is Scherer-Thaxton Preserve, and I have no objection if the county wants to allow hunting there, but I suspect that is not what local sportsmen & women have been led to expect.)
Some say to allow hunting on any county land violates the public trust. I have no way of knowing how specifically citizens feel about management practices, (well, you do – you could hire a firm to do a scientifically valid random survey, which I believe the county conducts annually anyway.) which may change as we acquire more conservation land. (I’ve been very clear that I can and will support acquiring more habitat for uses that include hunting, if voter-approved ESLPP funds are not used. These sources include Pittman-Robertson, SWFWMD, North Port, county general fund, Amendment 1, etc.) I am sure, however, that we want the land protected from development and to preserve the habitats.
Can you currently hunt on any of our county-owned lands? (Actually people have as part of hog management hunts.) No, regardless of the recent change that was made to the ordinance that governs activities on county-owned land. Any areas eventually identified for hunting will still require addressing a series of environmental, wildlife and safety hurdles — including a detailed wildlife management plan.
As reported in the Aug. 24, 2015, Herald-Tribune, “Individual properties identified for hunting activity must still be approved by county commissioners and remain subject to state regulation.” (Approved by consensus? Resolution? Ordinance? No one seems to know what the process for this consists of. Is there a process?)
Diverse outdoor activities have for many years coexisted all over Florida on public lands designated by the state as Wildlife Management Areas (which, unlike ESLPP lands that prohibit consumptive uses, were specifically acquired to accommodate hunting). Hunting activities in these areas are heavily regulated with respect to size, number of permits issued, species that may be hunted and the time and duration in which hunting is permitted.
Good land management provides the opportunity for different types of outdoor activities to coexist. That has been the case historically. (Historically, three decades of county commissions have chosen not to allow hunting on Carlton, Pinelands, and ESLPP lands. Is that because there was little demand? Because demand was met by the State Forest? Or because previous commissions understood what was meant by non-consumptive?)

*In 2011 there were 242,000 resident hunters in Florida[i], a number that has not increased since 1991.[ii] That same year (2011) there were 4.3 million people watching wildlife in Florida (resident and non-resident).



 This photograph of a sign at Sleeping Turtles encapsulates what the County Commission has so far failed to recognize or accept:

Hunting is prohibited on lands acquired through the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) not because of zoning or prohibitions in Chapter 90-33, but because hunting or the removal of animals (consumptive uses) were specifically prohibited by the terms of the Chapter 54-87 (a) that made the program possible. 

Here's the wording:

Uses of the Environmentally Sensitive Lands protected pursuant to this article will be limited to those activities that are ecologically benign, nonconsumptive and resource-based, except for those uses prescribed within the deeded Use Restrictions.

See also my previous blog posting on the subject: 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Palm Ave. Palms Fate Determined Sept. 8 2015

UPDATE: ON SEPT 8, 2015 the Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with the revised plan, which is designed to solve the flooding problem AND save the 26 cabbage palms.  No one spoke against the revised plan. 


440 days ago I posted Saving the palms of Palm Avenue, which was my entry into trying to save 26 cabbage palms on Palm Ave.  On Tuesday, September 8th, 2015, sometime after 2:30, the Sarasota City Commission will consider a landscaping plan that does, in fact save all 26, although a few will be relocated on site.

Unfortunately, I suspect the owner of four of the adjacent storefronts and his allies will be there to argue against the plan, so I am asking you, on behalf of the palms, to contact the City Commissioners, ideally at the meeting, and, if that is not possible, before the meeting.

You can view the agenda item here.


There are many reasons to support the revised plan:

• The City Commission voted unanimously in August of 2014 to work on a plan than resolved the flooding/drainage issue and saved as many trees as possible. This plan does that. [Note two commissioners now serving were not serving at that time.]

• City Staff recommends acceptance of the proposed Concept Plan and approval of the Change Order.

• The previous plan removed all the palms -- that is, killed them all and sent them to the landfill.

• About one quarter of the palms predate Sarasota's incorporation as a City - they were planted in 1911 and, as far as we know, are the oldest urban landscape plantings remaining in the City. The City was unaware of the historic dimension of the these trees prior to research conducted by volunteers.

• The revised design does a better job of complying with Downtown Greenspace policies IV A.3 and V 3, which address protecting existing trees.

• The revised design will provide more shade than the previous design, making it more in compliance with Downtown Master Plan Principle 2. 

• There is one species of tree (not three) making the revised plan congruent with Downtown Greenspace policy III B 1 and the Engineering Design Criteria Manual CS80-56 that call for a single species of tree. 

• The cabbage palms have "clear trunks and high canopies" thus meeting criteria in the Engineering Design Criteria Manual CS80-56.

• The Downtown Improvement District Board, which previously had strenuously opposed saving the palms, failed to oppose the new plan on a 2-2 vote August 4th. Board member Ron Soto was not present at that meeting, but had submitted a document expressing his support for the new plan.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tom Lyons Gets it Wrong on Chapman Sunshine Situation

You may have seen Tom Lyons opinion piece in the Sarasota Herald Tribune dealing with Susan Chapman's fight regarding a possible sunshine violation. If not, here's a link.

I sent the following to Tom Lyons this morning:


There aren't many people that have spoken out publicly against Susan Chapman as forcefully as I did. My blog posting [Why I won't be voting for Susan Chapman] was read 446 times. To be fair, this was a position I later tempered as a pragmatic matter. [Whom do I least favor on May 14th? The answer may surprise you

Anyway, I wanted to establish my credentials as not always subscribing to the Susan Chapman line of thought.

I disagree with the conclusions of your piece. The open meeting and sunshine laws are there to prevent discussion between those governed by the law. Discussion. That means a back and forth, a dialog, call and response, question and answer, scheming, conspiring, plotting, -----  not stating an opinion.

There is a crucial difference -- in order to provide leadership public officials have to be able to express their views, and not just in advertised, open, recorded meetings. AND, they have to be able to find out what their constituents think and not just in advertised, open, recorded meetings The sunshine law exists as an impediment to scheming, vote trading, and strategizing between public officials, but that is different than expressing an opinion on a matter of public policy. 

You are correct that with no meeting record we can't tell if Susan or Suzanne responded directly to each other with a "No, I disagree with what she said." or "She's right." But if commissioners want to collude, we have no way of knowing what they may have said on a commissioner-to-commissioner phone call either. Sunshine laws don't prevent misbehavior, they just set expectations and provide impediments and penalties. 

There is a difference between Susan having a discussion with merchants with Commissioner Atwell present and having a discussion with Commissioner Atwell with some merchants present -- I hope you can see that. 

Your interpretation prevents elected and appointed officials from attending the same meeting if it is not advertised, open to the public, and memorialized in some way. That is very debilitating and that interpretation has kept me from attending meetings I should have been at. I serve with many committed local citizen environmentalists on ESLOC, but recently only one of us could meet with county consultants to discuss environmental matters. When two County Commissioners attend an ESLOC meeting, they apparently have been advised that one has to leave the room if the other wants to say something -- and this is at an advertised, open to the public meeting that will produce both minutes and an audio record!

Taken to extremes, officials subject to your sunshine/open meeting law interpretation could not appear as candidates on a Tiger Bay panel or attend the New Years Eve pineapple drop.

The crazy thing is I can write a Herald Tribune guest column, post on Facebook or any of my several blogs, or tweet my thoughts on any subject and those I serve with (on ESLOC, PARC, and MRMCC) are free to read my pronouncements, so long as they don't respond, which which would make it a communication or discussion. And I am free to read their thoughts in traditional or internet-mediated media. How is that different from two of us attending a meeting and expressing our views, so long as we aren't engaging each other in a two-way exchange? 

Susan's challenge is, in my opinion, on target and much needed. Public officials should have the right to express their views, even if colleagues are present. They should not have the right to engage in a discussion with those colleagues. 

So, I'm writing to encourage you to rethink, reconsider, and ideally retrieve some of the opinions expressed in today's column.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hunting in Sarasota County Parks??


We all like to interpret words to our benefit. Once, when my mother was on the phone, I interrupted her to ask if I could have some Oreos. "A handful", she replied. I made a beeline for the kitchen, and using my outstretched hand as a foundation, created three or four precarious towers of Oreos -- basically emptying the package. The two or three my mother had envisioned had multiplied due to my liberal interpretation of "handful", which I apparently was. 

The Sarasota County Commission has embarked on another creative experiment in meaning. Led by Commissioner Robinson they have gone through the looking glass when it comes to hunting on lands acquired by taxpayer authorized dollars.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

― Lewis CarrollThrough the Looking Glass

Hunting is pretty clearly consumptive since it involves a "take" of a wildlife species, but let me address the chain of thinking evident on April 22nd.

At least one Sarasota County Commissioner disputes a staff (and common sense) finding that that hunting is a consumptive use. The commissioner’s logic was that if we burn, trap hogs, and allow cattle to graze on ESLPP lands, how can we consider hunting to be any different than those arguably consumptive activities?

Many county departments apparently have been involved in trying to figure out what “non-consumptive” means or what was intended when that wording was adopted.When trying to deduce what was meant, it is usual process to refer to the legislative history -- how the word/s have been used previously.

So it is instructive to look at the history of the county's “non-consumptive” language, that first appeared in connection with recreational use on the Carlton Reserve and was subsequently applied to the Pinelands Reserve and all ESLPP lands. 

Prior to the vote on the then Ringling-MacArthur Tract, a small group working with Mabry Carlton developed the three part test, (ecologically benign, non-consumptive, and resource-based) in order to clearly communicate to the voting public what kinds of recreational uses would be allowed. Mabry knew that clearly defining what would be allowed was necessary in advance of the vote. When the language was subsequently applied to ESLPP lands the “recreational” modifier was lost, but the history of the phrase and common sense argue that the test was meant to apply solely to recreational use. 

We know this because virtually all management actvities are consumptive in nature: installing fences, roads, fire breaks, etc. all consume habitat. And flames and hogs consume forage. And trapping hogs consumes hogs. And when hogs were shot on county preserve land, that was a management activity and not a recreational activity. 

Management activities are conducted by paid staff (sometimes volunteers) or contracted out to reach management goals. And all these management activities would be completely inappropriate if undertaken by citizens visiting the preserve in a recreational capacity. You just cant wander onto a county preserve and set the woods on fire as a recreational activity. But we do burn as a management activity.

If deer were over-populating a county preserve or doves were breaking branches with their weight, the county would undertake thinning or harvest as a management activity, not a recreational activity. 

The applicable wording 54-87 deals with USE. Management is not use. The scope of activities involved in professionally managing Ed Smith Stadium, for example, is completely different from how Ed Smith Stadium may be used by the public or private groups. 

So to be clear, the original intent and consistent practice on ESLPP lands has been that management activities may be consumptive, but recreational activities may not be.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Sarasota County thinking of Copying Legislature on Land Acquisition Subterfuge?

If you watch the May 15 presentation to the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners regarding the Environmentally Sensitive Lands millage (starting around 49:25), you will see Steve Bothelo propose a creative solution to funding some unmet needs in the county without raising the millage rate, but I’m not sure it was based on an accurate premise, and I am concerned it violates the intent of the voters.

The premise seemed to be that Sarasota County is unlikely to need $17 million or more in the coming year for land acquisition, so the .25 mill could be shrunk down to cover the dept service and maintenance, leaving .0779 mill (projected $3,242,000) that could be directed to the general fund for a variety of uses, most of which have nothing to do with what the voters directed the millage for. I believe that at one point or another Mr. Bothelo, the County Administrator, and Carolyn Brown all conveyed an impression that expenditures for PARC/ESLPP lands in the coming year were unlikely to total $17 million, much less $20 million. 

As you might expect, this is the sort of proposal that I believe should have been explored first with PARC and ESLOC, because I think it will come as a surprise for those advisory groups to learn there are no projects that could total $17 million in the near future. Why would that be?

As reported by Carolyn Brown, County staff are currently looking at previously identified sites to see which ones, or which portions of sites, no longer make sense. Obviously, this exercise should reduce the pool of possible expenditures. What staff is NOT doing (according to a recent conversation) is going back and looking at sites that were identified previously but which were back-burnered because the owners were not interested in exploring options with the County at that time. Near the beginning of the ESLPP program the county adopted a policy of not featuring sites with important environmental features if the owners were not interested in the program. Things have changed and owners are coming forward with quality lands for possible protection 

Just for these four possibilities is over $28 million dollars and there is no reason we couldn't close on all in the coming year if the Board decided to do so. There are more out there and with the impending hiring of a new acquisition agent for these two programs, we should expect a new surge in possible acquisitions as fresh eyes and improved GIS techniques are brought to bear. Nor does this analysis factor in continued or renewed interest in a connection from Oscar Scherer to Pinelands and beyond. 

So you can see why I’m puzzled by the conclusion that there isn’t much left to acquire in the coming year/s.

As far as neighborhood parkland opportunities are concerned, there is no requirement that the split be 60/40 in any given year – just that we keep working towards that ratio. But there are some potentially expensive parkland opportunities on the horizon.

•  The City of Sarasota has been fumbling around with a nomination of unique bayfront lands since October. Additions to IBSSA. Parcel to the north $1.85 million. Several lots to the south total somewhere around $5 million.

• I believe it is fair to say PARC has been cautious about buying sites with homes, since they typically cost far more than undeveloped sites. Having said that, at PARCs last meeting, two such opportunities were supported: four parcels in Osprey adjacent to Sarasota Crew [combined 2014 fair market value of $1,315,000] and a waterfront parcel in Englewood contiguous with Indian Mound Park with a 2014 fair market value of $252,400. Part of the appeal of that site was another vacant waterfront lot to the north. What is significant about these five lots is that four have homes on them. 

Were the county to adopt the strategy proposed by Commissioner Maio [aggressively acquiring waterfront sites, even if they have homes, if they are close to existing public lands] and apply it county-wide, (Beachfront, bayfront, river and creek-front) we could no doubt spend a lot of money rapidly.

I’m not sure if all Commissioners are aware that one of the first, if not the first, PARC acquisitions was on Longboat Key and staff has been working with Longboat key staff to refine a plan with a number of active recreation features on that site. My point is that PARC funds are not restricted to passive recreation, but they were not intended to provide facilities such as ball-fields. 

Not that long ago PARC heard a presentation from residents of Palmer Ranch who wanted a ball-field. Apparently, no provision was made for a ball-field in the planning of Palmer Ranch. Why couldn’t an entity as extensive as Palmer Ranch create an MSTU, or equivalent, to secure a parcel suitable for a ball-field? 

I understand from the video there is perceived interest in more of the “true needs of the community “ for active recreational lands. (Longboat Key was cited.) I don’t know what those numbers are. I do know that a few months ago 120,830 Sarasota residents expressed an interest in more land and water acquisition. Of course, they expressed their desires to the state, but we know how the state has responded. If money from Amendment 1 does free up, the County would be well advised to have matching funds available. 

Steve was careful to say “I don’t want it to be misconstrued that we’re taking voter approved, taxpayer monies away —what’s in that program will stay --we’re just not going to go up to that .25 for FY 16. . .” That’s a true statement – the proposal is not to take existing dedicated funds away, but voters should be forgiven for observing that the proposal on the table is to take dollars approved by the voters for this particular program and redirect that voter-approved millage capacity to other general fund projects, most of which have nothing to do with referenda-approved intent. Structurally, at least, this approach appears to be comparable to the Legislature’s current approach to Amendment 1 dollars. 

I feel I must comment on the process. PARC and ESLOC had a joint meeting on April 2, just 43 days before the May 15th Board discussion. This would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the trajectory of anticipated future acquisitions and discuss this millage adjustment strategy, which surely had been envisioned by then. But not only was their no exploration or discussion, there was no mention of this idea.
By design or default (meetings every other month?) advisory boards such as PARC and ESLOC have been left out of several important policy discussions in recent years. (The April 2nd meeting seemed to be dominated by a discussion of dogs in parks, while we were told it was premature to explore the policy implications of granting two square miles of ESLPP-acquired land to a private group for hunting.) One Powerpoint slide on 5-15 indicated PARC and ESLOC would “be briefed”, apparently rather than being consulted.

Rather than shielding advisory boards from important matters and briefing them on the outcomes afterwards, shouldn’t we be inviting the creativity and experience of these bodies to address county needs?

Had PARC and ESLOC been asked to address such County needs, who know what might have emerged. Ideas such as:

• The MSTU  (Palmer Ranch ballfield) approach for both active and passive neighborhood level parks so that neighborhoods (the primary beneficiaries of small neighborhood parks) could act without waiting for PARC funding.

• Developing a coordinated approach working with our legislative delegation (and other like-minded communities) to maximize the potential for some significant fraction of the $17 million we send to Tallahassee each year finds its way back to Sarasota. Less than 20% of our annual Doc stamp contribution would more than offset the $3.2 million sought to be gained through the proposed strategy. Can’t we package and promote “shovel-ready” expenditures (Legacy trail completion, Orange Hammock, etc.) to bring dollars back to Sarasota?

•  Perhaps we could yoke proposed referendum items (Public Safety Campus, Central Energy Plant and Fleet Maintenance Facility) – (projects not known to be voter candy) with funds to implement what will be coming out of the now-unfunded Parks Master Planning process – Legacy Trail completion, North County Athletic Facility, etc.?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

DEP Misrepresents Existing Cattle Situation in State Parks

 A recent guest column supplied by DEP argues "Cattle grazing also currently occurs in eight state parks and has for some time, without any complaints from visitors or damage to natural resources, while providing effective vegetation management."

The implication, of course, is that these parks are in some way comparable to what is being proposed for Myakka River State Park. It is impossible to know if DEP isn't aware of the facts or simply thinks no one will bother to find out.

There are two major problems with the DEP statement: the first is that the other state parks with cattle are somehow similar to Myakka and the second is that cattle don't damage natural resources.


To begin with, the statement makes it seem as though all the cattle in state parks are part of commercial cattle operations that are providing effective vegetation management. That's not so.

Cattle Parks 1 through 3. 

The cattle in three of the parks are a relict breed of scrub or cracker cattle that are in the park as part of interpretation efforts to help visitors understand Florida history. If you want to see them, head to Dudley Farm, Paynes Prairie or Lake Kissimmee State Parks. 

Or you can see examples of these scrub cattle at Crowley Museum and Nature Center just north of Myakka Park. If DEP was proposing a few cracker cows as part of a historical exhibit in Myakka River State Park I doubt if there would be many objections. But a few scrub cows are not what is being proposed in Myakka.

Scrub cow and calf at Dudley Farm State Park
That leaves five other parks with cows. These parks have contemporary commercial cattle breeds. In order to understand if what it happening at these parks is comparable to what is being proposed at Myakka, you need to know less than 5% of area in Myakka identified for the cattle lease is former pasture. That is, less than 5% of the proposed lease area was ever cleared of native vegetation and planted in pasture grass -- the rest of the site is native habitat, which ranchers call native range. So the proposed Myakka cattle lease site is more than 95% native habitat. 

4. At Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park 6,000 acres that were converted to improved pasture prior to purchase are still grazed by cattle. That’s 6,000 out of 54,000 acres. 6,000 acres of improved pasture -- a big hunk of pasture, not the meager 300 acres being discussed at Myakka.

5. Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park has cattle grazing and “contains no intact natural communities and the entire park is classified as ruderal and developed land.” This park was acquired for historic reasons, not its natural systems.  

At Alafia River, and Catfish Creek, grazing occurs on existing pastures that were acquired as part of  larger parcels.  

6. Go to DEP's Alafia River State Park webpage. You'll find this quote: "Located on what was once a phosphate mining site, the unique topography of the reclaimed land offers some of Florida's most radical elevation changes." Enough said.

7. Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park contains 2,786 acres of ruderal land. There is a relatively small portion of flatwoods in the Rolling Meadows addition that were not altered by agricultural impacts. The unit management plan (page 20) contains the following text: "The park has a short-term cattle lease on a portion of the Rolling Meadows addition of the preserve. This was amended to a cattle lease on the adjacent Lake Kissimmee State Park cattle lease site. The area that this incorporates was formerly cattle pasture prior to the DEP acquiring it. The cattle grazing is only an interim management tool that is being used until a longer term restoration plan for the area is carried out. The long-term goal would be to restore the area to the extent possible to the original natural community(s)."

 8. I am still looking for the eighth state park with cattle. It may be Colt Creek State Park, but I don't know if the managers moved forward on this item in the unit management plan"A cattle lease may be needed as an interim management practice to control the vegetation height within selected improved pastures. The park will evaluate the feasibility of a cattle lease at Colt Creek State Park."

But when I find it, that eighth cow park, I am very optimistic it will be a situation comparable to the four previously described parks that sensibly pursued cattle leases on disturbed (ruderal) land and/or significant chunks of former pasture.  


It should be obvious that cattle have tremendous potential to damage natural resources. If you drive by a neglected pasture, it is not uncommon to see a proliferation of thistles, pawpaws, dog fennel, tropical soda apple, and shrubs, as well as saw palmettos and small cabbage palms.

That's because from a cow's perspective all plant species can be placed into one of two groups: increasers and decreasers. Increasers are plants that increase when subjected to the selective grazing pressure exerted by cattle. Those are the ones that taste bad or are thorny or tough or out of reach -- the thistles, etc. In seasonal wetlands, cows avoid pickerelweed, another increaser. 

On the other hand, there are plants cows love to eat: these are called decreasers because they tend to decrease in the presence of cattle because the cattle eat them. Favored grasses such as maidencane and Lopsided Indian Grass are decreasers and cattle will go after them preferentially. 

You can see where this is headed. Left to their own devices cows will eat most of the desirable plants and leave the undesirable ones. The result is a shift in plant species composition as the increasers increase and the decreasers decrease. Unless ranchers attack the thistles and shrubs, the ultimate result will be a degraded pasture.  

One approach to minimizing these problems is rapid rotation – sequencing cows through different pastures before the desirable palatable plants are too heavily grazed. But that requires a lot more fencing and more cowboy time spent moving cattle. The fencing is not only a significant cost, but also consumes habitat and creates breaks in habitat continuity. The elaborate conditions placed in the draft lease agreement are ample testimony to the destructive potential of cattle.

Managers at Myakka have spent decades in an effort to reduce shrubs and other increasers while trying to restore grasses and wildflowers that are commonly decreasers.

Elsewhere in the opinion piece the claim is made that "Visitors will most likely have to seek out the cattle to enjoy a scene from Old Florida." As noted above, the "Old Florida" effect is produced by cracker cows, not modern breeds. 

DEP has attempted to reassure the public that the proposed cattle lease in Myakka River State Park is the type of operation that has proven to be acceptable in eight other state parks and that the situations in those eight parks are comparable to what is being proposed for Myakka. That's not the case and DEP should concede that fact.


Here's the deal. I live in Sarasota County. I have the greatest respect for the local cattleman (including dairymen) I've have known. They include Mabry, Lat, Dallas, Buster, Lewis, Chuck, Allan, and Cy. I wish there more like them. They owned/managed most of the land now protected for its environmental value. Today, Sarasota County owns conservation easements on 17,045 acres of privately owned cattle ranch land. That's testimony to rancher stewardship.

In addition the conservation easements, there are 2,878 acres of cattle leases on publicly-owned lands in Sarasota County. I support those leases just as I support the leases on the existing state parks. Cattle leases can provide either income or management services on sites with extensive pasture. (Or, in the case of scrub cattle, they can be educational.) 

I personally believe that a mix of core parkland where the habitat is managed without cows surrounded by ranchland with cows provides maximum diversity for wildlife and helps protect the park from more intensive adjoining uses. Its probably true that the neighboring ranches lack some of decreaser species found in the park, but there is some great prairie and pineland on nearby ranches. I wouldn't want all one or the other. And ranchers and park managers learn from each other about management issues. 

Whenever the public acquires lands with significant pasture, (either in terms of total pasture acreage or high percentage of pasture or ruderal land) cattle grazing should be considered. 

If Myakka Park fit either of these criteria, this blog would be quite different, or wouldn't exist.  But the former pasture or ruderal acreage in MRSP is minimal, whether measured by acreage or percentage (less than 5% of the park). 

For some unknown reason, DEP got it into its figurative head that cattle grazing makes sense in Myakka. It does not. It didn't make sense in 2004 when the unit management plan was last updated and it makes even less sense now.


DEP lists three environmental priorities on the front page of the agency's website. Ironically, the  third priority is Increasing the access to our award-winning state parks. How is adding commercial cattle to Myakka River State Park's minimal former pastureland going to advance that goal?

Bottom line: Grazing revenue statewide averages about $7.42 per acre.  Revenue from outdoor recreation averages $74 per acre, if you spread user fee revenues across the acreage of the entire park system.  And Myakka River State Park is the second most popular inland state park in Florida and one that pays its own way. 

Adding cattle to Myakka River State Park is not comparable to existing cattle operations on other parks and it is not moving in the right direction. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Tallahassee Attack on Myakka River State Park

The following essay originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on April 20th, 2015 as a guest column on the editorial page A-14. As usual, authors do not get to choose headlines. The SH-T headline: FIGHT PLAN TO ALLOW CATTLE GRAZING IN MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK places the focus on the cattle grazing. My point was more about challenging politicians and political appointees who want to change long-standing park policy based on top-down ideology rather than science-based management originating from those closest to the situation.


The other day I saw that the old Bispham homestead on 41 north of Proctor had been torn down. It wasn’t as though some peace treaty had been signed there, but it was part of a National Register Historic District and it was a little bit of old Sarasota we could see and enjoy as we drove the Trail. The owners were under no binding obligation to preserve it, but it got me wondering what, if anything, we consider sacred around here? Not sacred in the religious sense, but what would the community really go to bat for to keep our heritage intact? Siesta Beach came to mind, and some folks are challenging a dredging plan that could significantly impact Siesta Beach. But what comes after Siesta Beach?

The answer seemed obvious: Myakka River State Park -- one of the state’s most impressive wildlife locales and a natural asset that is a touchstone for many residents. Although it is a State Park, Sarasotans can be forgiven for thinking of it as our park. It is our wild counterbalance to our developed coast – a place for personal exploration and THE go-to place to take out-of-state guests to see alligators. Most of us can’t remember a Sarasota without Myakka River State Park, which has become a major tourist attraction (read economic driver) as well.

No sooner had I completed my thought experiment than I started hearing rumors about someone or some group (politicians?, bureaucrats? – it wasn’t clear) in Tallahassee that is trying to change Myakka Park and avoid public involvement. There’s apparently a new approach to State Parks being advanced that argues they should be paying their way by incorporating multiple uses: cell phone towers, wellfields, timbering, cattle leases, and maybe even hunting. This goal of making State Parks generate more income is apparently part of a philosophy that argues State Parks should not simply be places managed with a focus on conservation and recreation, but instead be “multiple use” public lands that treat all potential uses equally and require no state funding. State Parks already cover more than three quarters of their operating cost, and Myakka Park brings in more money than the state is spending to run it, making Myakka a “donor” that helps offset those parks that aren’t as lucrative.

Despite more than paying its own way, our park is apparently being singled out as some sort of test case. An old friend of mine filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got a copy of a proposal to force Myakka Park to lease ten square miles for a private cattle lease. This proposal would circumvent the approved procedure for changing the park’s management plan – a procedure that mandates an opportunity for public input.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with cattle grazing on public lands – I was supportive of cattle leases on Sarasota County’s Jordyn (Deer Prairie Creek) and Walton sites, but I definitely have a problem with top-down management decisions originating 250-miles away by people who may never have been to Myakka Park. Rejiggering park management plans by remote control from Tallahassee doesn’t make any sense. I question whether privatizing part of Myakka even makes any sense for ranchers. Only about 5% of the area is former pasture and it has been abandoned for 18 years. It would require a lot of fencing and water sources, loading facilities, and other changes before it could work.

Ironically, Sarasota County has been through this before. Back in the late 60’s the state decided to turnover the development of Oscar Scherer (then a state recreation area) to private contractors. Audubon and Save Our Bays challenged that decision and the state was forced to buy out the private firm. Our state parks need to remain places managed for conservation and recreation, not whatever might turn a buck.

Will the State go ahead and with this proposal for an imposed cattle lease? Will we see more proposals for uses such as wellfields, cell phone towers, and hunting in our state parks? Will the Tallahassee crowd try to short-circuit the adopted rules for changing park management plans by excluding the public? I don’t know, but we may be about to find out.

The hatched area below Highway 72 is the area proposed for a cattle lease.

South Lido: Erosion Problem or Inappropriate Building Problem?

The Army Corps of Engineers would have you believe the erosion problems on Lido Key stem from actions of John Ringling. Not buying it. Ringling connected the Cerol Isles, but it was still just sand and responded to natural forces. 

The Corps never mentions the decisions that were made to allow the construction of buildings out into what was open beach or open water in 1948. 
South Lido, Groundhog Day 1948. The Lido casino appears in the upper right.
Note where Ben Franklin Drive ends.
This is the image used to create the graphic above.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Lead on the Pinelands Reserve: Violation of a Public Promise

On Thursday the 22nd, the Planning Commission considered Rezone Petition 14-34 and, despite testimony arguing against from Bill Lewis, Wade Matthews, Jim Hunter, and myself, they voted 7-1 to move the rezone forward. Special note should be made of contributions from Maynard Hiss and Sherm Stratton.

Commissioner Bob Burrus asked some relevant questions and ultimately voted against (Chair Bob Morris also asked about downrange potential safety problem with bullets from the existing range possibly affecting the proposed sporting clays course, but apparently his concerns were addressed).

I was surprised to learn the county is the applicant, since one can't really determine that from the application.

The county's whole argument about why the Comp Plan, Land Management Master Plan, and Pinelands Reserve Master Plan don't apply is that the Pinelands Reserve does not appear on a list of existing county-owned parks and preserves. No one bothered to ask why it doesn't, when the list was made, who made it, at who's direction. The relevant question is why it is not on the list!

If you know an investigative reporter or just a persistent citizen who would like to get to the bottom of this, please contact me.

To review the county packet, click here.

I believe the County Commission will take this up February 10th at 9:00 am in Venice. Materials for the board packet need to be a week ahead of time.