Supporting Florida Parks(II)(?)

My previous post discussed some troubling FDEP proposals for more logging and cattle grazing in state parks. Concerns about park financing don’t have to bounce from one odd idea to another. There are serious scholars addressing these questions, as well as information-dense studies of state park finances.

For example, Margaret Walls, at Resources for the Future, published her 2013 study, “Paying for State Parks: Evaluating Alternative Approaches for the 21st Century.” She carefully analyzed  many possible financing mechanisms including user fees, privatization of visitor services, dedicated public funds, and voluntary private contributions. (I didn’t see grazing leases or timber payments as an option.) If we wanted to figure out how to finance state parks on a stable and fair basis, an independent study specific to Florida could provide answers.

Is Florida putting an unusual amount of money into park operations? Nope. In fact, the opposite is true. Data from the “National Association of State Park Directors” shows Florida is a comparative cheapskate. In FY2010-2011, the Florida State Park Operating Budget was only 0.121% of the total state budget, compared to the 50-state average of 0.221%. (2011- 2012 Annual Information Exchange Report, Table 5C: Financing – Parks’ Share of State Expenditures)

Florida also stands out in the proportion of revenue the parks generate themselves. In 2010-2011, Florida state parks generated 66% of total operating revenue, which far exceeds the state average of 42%. (Table 5A: Financing – Operating Expenditures)

In short, running Florida parks costs less than in most other states and the current park system generates more money for operations than in most other states. The real question is why eccentric ideas for squeezing even more money out of state parks are being circulated.

Supporting state parks

In several newspaper op-eds, Secretary of FDEP Jon Steverson has answered critics who oppose his push to reduce state appropriations for state parks. He is very interested, for example, in taking money from private parties for more cattle grazing and logging in Myakka River State Park, one of the state’s oldest and largest parks. Myakka Park is an extraordinary resource, harboring two large lakes, extensive wetlands, uncommon species, and a great deal of recreational use. The Myakka River itself running through the Park was designated by the state Legislature as Wild and Scenic.

Managing state parks as profit centers is a threat to the state’s entire award-winning system. We need to keep in mind what is the purpose of that system. According to FDEP,

The mission of the Florida Park Service (FPS) is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting, and restoring natural and cultural resources.

Cattle grazing and timber harvesting don’t fit within that mission and people are properly very concerned about how Myakka policies could spread to other parks. After all, why not bring cattle into many state parks rather than just a few? Why these potential revenue sources? Where did these ideas come from? Why now? What other revenue-raising ideas are being considered at Myakka and other parks? How do these proposals fit within an overall plan to meet park financial needs?

Florida can well afford to keep and improve its state parks. That is possible, however, only if park overseers are willing to fight to support them.

The limits of water “intuition”

josephheathenlightenmentJoseph Heath, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, offers as good a theory as any to explain why Florida politics–and water policy–has become so irrational. In Enlightenment 2.0, he observes that one side of the political spectrum has overwhelmingly decided to favor their “intuition”:

Conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it’s about “gut feelings” and “values.” (p. 10)

Yet what  has happened to conservatism in recent years, particularly in its the American variant, is that it has become a defense not of tradition against reason but rather of intuition against reason. (p. 99)

The core feature of “common sense” conservatism is its hostility to expertise. (p. 222)

The current environment, particularly in the media, creates a genuine dilemma for those who would like to see reason prevail over passion in politics. How do you deal with an opponent who responds to truth with truthiness, or a social environment in which no one seems to know the difference? (p. 271)

Although traditional interest groups still benefit from barely-legal financial contributions, an over-reliance on “intuition” may be a much bigger problem. When the governor announces that 49 other states have more state workers per capita than Florida, he doesn’t mean that as an occasion for self-reflection. Instead, he gives it as a reason to ignore other experienced government managers.

Complex water ideas are threatening to some viewpoints. They pose a risk of breaking through the cognitive bubble of intuitions that dominate Florida water oversight. This explains why the last statewide water management conference was held in 2006, why the state ceased holding joint meetings of WMD governing board members, why the Florida Department of Environmental Protection shut down its agency library before that, why there is no state water plan, why work on developing new state water policies has not involved any advisory commission of water experts, why the legislature is comfortable ignoring the will of the voters on Amendment 1, why Florida has no climate change plan, and why water management districts are OK with dismissing their most knowledgeable and experienced staff members.

You could buy and read the book or you could watch this half-hour interview with Heath.

Two Leopold anecdotes

Luna Leopold (1915-2006), one of five children of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), was the first Chief Hydrologist of the U. S. Geological Survey and an eminent scholar. His most striking Florida connection is as the primary organizer of the 1969 “Environmental Impact of the Big Cypress Swamp Jetport” report. Sometimes called the “Leopold Report” or the “Leopold-Marshall” report because of Art Marshall’s key writing role, it helped terminate expansion of the Big Cypress Jetport. The report’s first paragraph was extraordinarily blunt:

JetportThe second Luna Leopold anecdote was told by himself in his Water in Environmental Planning book. It is not about Florida specifically but speaks to an attitude we often see here:

Leopold dowsing

Yes, that is about how it works.

Florida’s hidden water markets

Having a hard time securing a Florida water use permit? Is the proposed water withdrawal just plain too controversial? Here’s how you get around those problems. It is a bit cumbersome, and will amount to buying a water use permit, which is not strictly legal. You will have to operate behind the scenes.

First, find some nearby water user that might sell their land to you. Like, say, a sod farm or two that could be converted to the massive cattle pasture you want to create. Make sure they have a valid water use permit! After you buy the property, go to the water management district and get that permit, including the original water use conditions, transferred to you. That’s routine. But your purpose is not to continue growing sod. Make a second trip to the WMD and request a “permit modification.” Great news for you!–this is not a new permit application with all that associated hassle! A permit modification usually just slides right through. Best of all, you get the original allocated amount, even if the sod farm wasn’t using the full amount.

This convoluted process has been followed a number of times in the “Southern Water Use Caution Area” of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. (SWFWMD even estimated how much an irrigation permit added to land values.) This process probably also explains why the “Sleepy Lands” cattle ranch in St. Johns River Water Management District decided to buy two sod farms and then go for permit modifications. It worked: an Administrative Law Judge found that the permit modifications met all requirements.

You got your water and the owners of the sod farms got a nice implicit payment for their water use permits. No one knows how often this happens, what the payments are, or how much it undermines the regular permitting system. Shhhh!