Florida is moving toward expanding cattle grazing, hunting and other commercial activities in state parks to help make them self-sufficient, an idea raising alarms among conservationists.

Up first is a plan to sell cattle-grazing rights to 6,630 acres in the Myakka River State Park near Sarasota, one of the state’s most diverse natural areas popular with wildlife photographers, hikers and boaters, according to a draft bid document by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Department spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said commercial timbering and hunting were also under consideration for state parks.

“The department continually looks for opportunities to expand visitor services and recreation as well as make our parks and lands more self-sustaining,” Miller said in a statement on Thursday.

More than 27 million people visit Florida parks annually, said Tom Larson, conservation chairman for the Florida Sierra Club, adding that commercial activities were not "what people expect to find.”

ADVERTISING
 

A Change.org Internet petition to stop the cattle lease in the Myakka park launched by activist Jono Miller, a retired environmental studies professor at New College, in Sarasota on Florida's west coast, had received more than 1,700 signatures by Thursday.

“We’re viewing this as the opening skirmish in a broader campaign that Tallahassee is undertaking to completely redefine the state parks,” Jono Miller said. He said local residents had received no public notice of the plan.

Cattle grazing in the 37,000-acre Myakka park would block large-animal migration, and damage wetlands and natural vegetation, said Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, a west coast Florida environmental group.

Cattle grazing already occurs in several state parks, but Jono Miller said those leases involve already disturbed land or parks that harbor special cows descended from a historic Florida breed brought to the state by the Spanish.

In recent years, conservationists have fought off proposals for recreational vehicle camping grounds and golf courses within state parks, Larson said.