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.