Gov. Rick Scott toured the state Department of Environmental Protection offices Friday and emerged with a book on Florida parks and a vow not to close any of them.
The agency last fall outlined a plan to reduce spending by 15 percent, including shuttering 53 state parks. But Scott, who ended his hourlong building tour touting all these great parks which attract 20 million visitors a year, ended talk of park closures.
No, we have beautiful parks, Scott said. As you know, weve gotten two gold medals for our parks. I think we have 20 million-plus visitors. So, no, weve got great parks, and weve got to make sure we preserve them and take care of them.
Scotts comments followed his budget staff making a similar declaration to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations panel earlier this week. But the governor struggled to articulate his goals for the agency, which his advisers have recommended merging with the departments of transportation and community affairs, refocusing it as part of a more muscular state economic development agency.
Concerns among environmentalists about which direction Scott may tilt the agency were heightened when the Republican governor last month chose Herschel Vinyard, formerly director of a Jacksonville shipyard, to head the agency.
We all live in this great state. We have parks everywhere, Scott said. But we live here because its a pretty pristine environment, and we love her, whether its the beaches, or whether its the Everglades or the rivers.
On his tour with agency officials, Scott said, I was asking them about the longest hiking trail, which I guess is nine miles, which Id like to go take. So, I dont think its one thing. I think its keep going down the path of keeping this as nice as we can.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said he was pleased by the governors stand saying he hoped Scott would come around on other environmental issues, as well, after further study.
The governor is actually starting to learn something about Florida, and he realizes that parks have a real economic value, Draper said. My hope is that he will modify other views as he tours agencies and learns what they do.
Draper said Audubon and other environmental organizations were still wary of Scotts budget proposal to cut property taxes paid to water management districts over the next two years, saying the move could threaten these five regional districts ability to monitor water quality.
To arbitrarily reduce their revenue just doesnt make sense, Draper said.
Scott, on the day he qualified as a candidate for governor, famously told a Tallahassee political gathering that his extensive campaign travel would lead to where by the end, Ill know every countys name. And Friday, Scott seemed to gain a new appreciation for the states outdoors, saying he planned to hang a photo in his Capitol office that is depicted in a state park book given him by agency officials.
But, he added, to do all these things, weve got to grow jobs As we grow jobs and we grow revenues in the state, theres a lot more we can do.