Ocala forest recreation areas closed due to shutdown


Juniper Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest is closed down on Monday October 7, 2013 as are the rest of recreation areas due to the federal government shut down.

Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner
Published: Monday, October 7, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 7, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.

OCALA -- All the facilities that charge a fee or require getting a permit in the Ocala National Forest are closed until further notice due to the budget gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Facts

OCALA NATIONAL FOREST

CLOSED:
-- All U.S. Forest Service operated campgrounds
-- All privately operated campground facilities including but not limited to:
Juniper Springs
Salt Springs
Alexander Springs
Clearwater Springs
Silver Glen Springs
Wildcat Lake and Dorr Lake cabins

OPEN:
-- 4-wheeler trails to season permit holders only
-- Gun range
-- Dispersed camping
-- Hiking
-- Fishing to license holders
-- Hunting to license holders

EVENTS THAT WILL CONTINUE:
-- Florida Black Bear Festival in Umatilla Oct. 12
-- Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway field trips

Except for about 14 of the most essential employees, the U.S. Forest Service's 55 staff members in Ocala have been put on furlough.

"Every day campground on the Ocala National Forest, whether run by the Forest Service or concessionaires, is closed right now," said Mike Herrin, Ocala National Forest district ranger. "The forest is open for hiking, fishing and hunting, if this stretches into hunting season. The forest is still open for those things because it would be impossible to close."

So, activities such as dispersed camping, where one simply pitches a tent, are permitted. But any campgrounds that have facilities such as bathrooms or concessions and the like are closed for business.

People who have season permits to ride 4-wheel vehicles on trails may continue to do so, but anyone who needs to buy a permit will not be able to get one.

The gun range, because it is operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a state agency, is open.

The recreational facilities that are managed by private concessionaires who hold special-use permits are closed — Juniper Springs, Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, Clearwater Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Wildcat Lake and Dorr Lake cabins.

And that has executives of those concessionaires upset because they receive no federal money to run their operations. Although the Forest Service owns the facilities, the staff, operations and equipment are paid entirely by the companies from the proceeds they earn.

"We make our money from the public coming in," said Steve Werner, vice president of American Land and Leisure out of Orem, Utah. "We are not quite sure why we are being asked to leave. They want us out of there because it is federal land."

American Land and Leisure operates Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, Clearwater Springs, Silver Glen Springs and Wildcat Lake and Dorr Lake cabins.

Werner said they are allowed to keep security at the facilities, but he has had to lay off 16 employees.

"We are at risk of losing staff permanently because they may find jobs elsewhere. So, it's a bad deal," Werner said. "They are not happy. We have had staff in tears about it."

He said his staff, which lives in RVs on site, now has to find other places to live, too.

"So, they are being evicted," Werner said.

Kelly Moffitt, chief operating officer of Recreation Resource Management Inc. based in Cottonwood, Ariz., is faced with the same problems as Werner. Recreation Resource operates Juniper Springs Recreation facilities.

"We have about a dozen employees," Moffitt said. "They go off payroll. When this is all over, we want them back. That's one of the pitfalls of this kind of situation. They live on wheels. If their job drives off, they can, too. We don't know how long this will take."

Moffitt said the closing of these facilities is not a fiscal issue because the company, not the federal government, pays all the costs of managing the complex. And he said the decision is not being made locally.

"We are being closed because of an active decision to make a statement politically," Moffitt said. "It was not costing them anything," he said about the federal government. "Now it's costing them because they are not getting the revenue. We give them a percentage of the revenue we generate."

Moffitt said people who have reservations at the facility for events like family reunions, weddings and special events will have to cancel their plans.

"This is painful and hurtful to people," Moffitt said. "It seems mean-spirited to do this to the public."

There are events that will continue to be held as scheduled.

The Florida Black Bear Festival will be held in Umatilla on Oct. 12, said Jim Thorsen, who sits on the event committee.

In addition, the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway field trips will continue, said Thorsen, who is the byway's vice chairman.

Meanwhile, Herrin is trying to protect the 385,000-acre forest with a skeleton crew of 10 firefighters, including two managers, and three law enforcement officers.

"Right now we are trying to patrol and keep things as safe as possible for the facilities and the people," Herrin said.

Because all the facilities have been closed, he has had to tell the roughly 25-30 volunteers, who also live in RVs in the forest, to leave. Now they, too, will have to find other places to stay.

"They are a huge help to us," Herrin said.

Regarding those who had reservations at the campgrounds, Herrin said they will have to request refunds when the staff returns.

Asked if he was given any indication about how long this might last, Herrin said, "We watch the news like everybody else does."

Contact Susan Latham Carr at 867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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