State budget could temporarily close seven area state parks


Dudley Farm Historic State Park is on the list of parks that would be closed temporarily under a state budget proposal.

Erica Brough/Sun file photo
Published: Saturday, January 29, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 at 11:33 p.m.

Some of the area's more iconic natural places and historic sites, among them the 120-foot-deep limestone sinkhole at Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park and the historic Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, could fall victim to state budget cuts.

Facts

Local parks that could be closed

A 15 percent budget cut to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection could result in temporary closure of 53 state parks, including the following in this area, shown here with their annual operating budgets:
• Cedar Key State Museum State Park, Cedar Key - $53,031
• Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park, Gainesville - $114,098
• Dudley Farm Historic State Park, Newberry - $ 170,613
• Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, Cross Creek - $164,418
• Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, Olustee - $85,111
• San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, Alachua - $124,006
• Wacasassa Bay Preserve State Park, Cedar Key - $135,087

Last fall, every state agency received instructions to prepare a 15 percent reduction to its operating budget. As part of its cost-cutting plan, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed the temporary closure of 53 parks.

In Alachua County, the list includes Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park, San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, Dudley Farm Historic State Park in Newberry and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek.



Cedar Key State Museum State Park and Wacasassa Bay Preserve State Park in Cedar Key and Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Baker County also face the possibility of closing.

It remains to be seen if the temporary closures will be included in Gov. Rick Scott's recommended budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, when the state is expected to face $3.6 billion in cuts.

Information the DEP submitted to a Florida House budgeting subcommittee projects the closings would save nearly $6.5 million and eliminate 22 full-time-equivalent positions while reducing park revenue by $911,179 and annual park visitation by 1,099,650.

The 53 locations eyed for temporary closure were the "day use only" sites — parks in the system with the lowest annual attendance. Each had fewer than 60,000 visitors per year, according to the DEP information.

"These parks were chosen based on their visitation numbers during fiscal year 2009-2010," DEP spokeswoman Kristin Lock wrote in an e-mail. "They reflect the parks with the lowest visitation that do not offer camping or other overnight accommodations."

She wrote that state officials would not, at this time, elaborate on how long a temporary closure would last because the "proposed closures are still just that, proposed.

"Therefore, we cannot and will not speculate on hypothetical impacts or implementation details," Lock wrote.

The talk of closures stirred up some opposition Friday.

Terry Munn, past president of the Friends of San Felasco, said that park's revenues now exceed its operating expenses. That comparison, however, does not include salary figures.

"It's amazing to me that they make more money than they spend and they still want to close the park," Munn said.

He said the opening of bike trails and horse trails boosted the park's attendance and a bike tour on a recent weekend drew a crowd of more than 500.

Cedar Key Mayor Pat O'Neal expects residents and the business community will "mobilize" to fight the potential closings. He said the historic museum, which the state has considered closing before, was a major tourist draw for Cedar Key and the Wacasassa preserve was important for the protection of the coastline.

Alachua Conservation Trust Executive Director Robert Hutchinson said this was the third time in recent years the DEP has proposed closing parks to cut the budget.

"We call this the perennial threat," he said.

Hutchinson believes the savings that could be realized is less significant than the public show of willingness to cut costs.

"A lot of these parks operate on a break-even basis but they are a visible thing that says ‘we are serious about budget cuts,' " Hutchinson said.

State Rep. Keith Perry R-Gainesville, said at first flush proposed park closings appear to be "Draconian" cuts. Still, Perry added the reality is that state agencies "across the board" face substantial budget reductions. He said it would be premature to make a final judgment without hearing more details from the DEP and seeing if Scott includes the closures in his budget proposal.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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