Byline: DARA KAM Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
TALLAHASSEE -- Nature lovers are cheering Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of a proposal from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to shut down 53 state parks.
The department circulated a list last month that targeted parks including St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, Savannas Preserve State Park in Jensen Beach and the smaller Atlantic Ridge Preserve State Park in Stuart.
The agency drew up the list last fall in a look at how to cut 15 percent from its budget.
"No, we have beautiful parks," Scott said Friday after touring the department's headquarters in Tallahassee.
"As you know, we've gotten two gold medals for our parks. I think we have 20 million-plus visitors. So, no, we've got great parks, and we've got to make sure we preserve them and take care of them."
Audubon of Florida celebrated Scott's remarks by sending an e-mail to 10,000 supporters of the "53 Parks in 53 Days" campaign the organization launched this week in response to talk of the park shutdowns.
Despite the assurance from Scott, Audubon won't call off the campaign, Executive Director Eric Draper said.
The environmental community remains wary of Scott because he appointed Herschel Vinyard, a former director of a Jacksonville shipyard and a lawyer who often fought against the Department of Environmental Protection, to head the agency.
Draper said Audubon and groups like it also are concerned about Scott's budget proposal to cut property taxes paid to water management districts over the next two years, which they say could threaten the five regional districts' ability to monitor water quality.
But Draper praised Scott's comment that he wants to increase park attendance, which brings in about $70 million a year in fees, by about 3 percent.
"I say three cheers for the governor's 3 percent idea," Draper said. "If we can get more people to go to the parks and get them to pay, park revenue will go up and we can afford to keep all of the parks open."
On Friday, Scott visited the agency, and officials there gave him a book about the state's parks. Scott said he planned to hang one of the photos from the book in his Capitol office.
"We all live in this great state. We have parks everywhere," Scott said. "But we live here because it's a pretty pristine environment, and we love her, whether it's the beaches, or whether it's the Everglades or the rivers."
The state's park system has influential friends in the legislature, which has ultimate budget authority but faces having $3.62billion less to spend than last year.
Closing 53 parks, about a third of Florida's 160, would save about $6.5million a year, officials have said.
"Every one of those 53 parks is in someone's district," Draper said "We're hoping as the legislators become aware of the proposals to close the parks, and hear from their constituents, that they can find money to keep the parks open."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.