A series of four meetings taking place this week, including one in DeLeon Springs, asks the public to weigh in on adding family-style camping to more Florida state parks.
The Florida Park Service wants to double the number of state parks with family campgrounds to meet what officials say is a growing demand.
Of 160 parks, 53 now have camping. The division is considering adding camping to another 56, with the first four including DeLeon Springs. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Flagler County is among the ones for future consideration.
The service intends to solicit business proposals from private entities, and based on those, decide which would receive "further consideration."
Two key questions lay at the heart of the controversy:
Family camping includes tents, pop-up campers and recreational vehicles.
Park supporters and environmental advocates fear the plan will commercialize and privatize the state's nationally acclaimed parks and harm environmentally sensitive areas and wildlife. They are concerned about adding more people to already popular parks, such as DeLeon Springs, the state's 20th most popular last year, which draws huge crowds on warm weekends.
Several state legislators, including Senator Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, oppose the plan. Dockery, an avid state parks fan, for years led legislative tours of selected state parks.
Dockery said this week she is opposed to putting "high impact infrastructure in sensitive environmental areas against the wishes of the users and volunteers."
Twice already this year, park advocates made it abundantly clear they will rally to protect their parks.
First, state officials released a list of 53 parks that could be closed due to budget constraints, drawing protests. Officials said no parks would be closed. Later, during the spring Legislative session, Sen. John Thrasher and others announced a plan to build golf courses at five state parks. After an immediately public clamor, the plan was quickly scuttled.
The latest meetings, including the one at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the DeLeon Springs United Methodist Church, 265 Ponce DeLeon Blvd., could also draw supporters who have asked for more amenities, such as camping spaces and picnic pavilions in some state parks.
Donald Forgione, director of the parks division, said the state proposal has "kind of gotten sideways and it's unfortunate."
"Camping and state parks go together like marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate," said Forgione, a 28-year-veteran of the parks division and the first person to ever lead the division after working his way up from a ranger.
Campers have wanted more space in state parks for years, he said.
"So many times people say I wish you had camping here or had another picnic pavilion," Forgione said.
"When a 15-passenger van shows up full of Boy Scouts and they don't have a reservation and we don't have a place for them, we kind of do a disservice."
At DeLeon Springs, the proposal states, the campground could be built on land north of the park along County Road 3 that was formerly pasture and added to the park boundaries after the springs were purchased. The proposal calls for campsites to be stabilized with water and electric and paved roads.
Opponents question why the proposal is on such a rushed time schedule. The division won permission from a state acquisition and restoration council in June to expedite proposed changes, then quickly released an announcement about the meetings.
Susan Young, an outdoor enthusiast and author from Deltona, is among those opposed.
"Part of the reason they are conserved as state parks is because they are fragile," Young said. "They protect our springs and our aquifer.
"Constructing even a little more parking lots, shower buildings, etc., and running more heavy vehicles through there would cause a negative impact," said Young.
Forgione said people are worrying unnecessarily.
The same people who run the system that won two national gold medals and is in the running for a third -- is the "same exact staff bringing forward the campground expansion," he said. "We strive hard to make sure we're providing recreation as needed while protecting historic, cultural and natural resources."
The campgrounds could function like many of the concessions already operating in state parks, Forgione said. For example, DeLeon Springs has private concessionaires running the kayak rental, a scenic boat tour and the Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant.
Statewide, about 100 businesses operate within state parks, Forgione said, providing a "seamless recreational experience."
Forgione said the plan might work better at some parks than others, which is why he said the state wants to conduct the meetings.
Karen Russi of DeLeon Springs, one of two women who led the drive for the state to buy DeLeon Springs, is a founding member of the Friends of DeLeon Springs State Park.
Russi said the Friends group had some initial concerns, but after talking to Park Manager Brian Polk she said the group felt a little better and will "wait and see" how the discussion goes.
Audubon of Florida launched a recent campaign asking supporters to attend the meetings and give their opinions, saying the quickly assembled proposal needs "careful, transparent consideration."
Audubon said the state's carrying capacities for parks should be based on whether resources would be downgraded and that more information would be needed about the costs and conditions before the proposals were put out to bid.
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