Timber harvesting and palm or palmetto frond harvesting among activities proposed to generate more revenue from Myakka River State Park

Draft updated management plan also calls for new $4 million ecotourism facility

Graphics show the locations of proposed new facilities in Myakka River State Park. Image courtesy FDEP

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is proposing that timber harvesting, fuel and stump harvesting, and palm or palmetto frond harvesting in Myakka River State Park “could be accommodated in a manner that would be compatible and not interfere with the primary purpose of resource-based outdoor recreation and conservation.”

That is the recommendation in the updated draft management plan for the park, which will be the focus of a March 2 public meeting in Sarasota. The session will begin at 5 p.m. in the Activity Center of the Suncoast Community Church, located at 8000 Hawkins Road. A presentation of the proposals is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., according to FDEP. The updated plan would be in effect for 10 years, according to the state’s Division of Recreation and Parks.

In regard to timber management, the draft updated management plan points out that the thinning and clearing of planted pine occurred during the 2010-11 fiscal year. Then in July 2014, “[a]n area of small offsite pine trees was identified with potential for removal when [they] mature to a marketable size in ten years.”

Pine flatwoods are among the habitats in Myakka River State Park. Photo courtesy of Fran Palmeri

The draft points out, “Uses such as water resource development projects, water supply projects, stormwater management projects … and sustainable agriculture and forestry (other than those forest management practices specifically identified in this plan) are not consistent with this plan or the management purposes of the park.”

FDEP came under fire in 2015 for proposing cattle grazing in an area of the park as a means of supplementing income produced by visitors’ fees. The draft does note that visitor fees and related charges “are the principal source of revenue generated by the park.”

The draft notes that the analysis of any “secondary management purposes … considered the park’s natural and cultural resources, management needs, aesthetic values, visitation and visitor experiences.”

A portion of the park is visible from the bridge on State Road 72. Photo courtesy of Fran Palmeri

It also cites goals that “express [the Division of Recreation and Parks’] long-term intent in managing the state park …” Among them are the protection of water quality and quantity; restoration and maintenance of “the natural communities/habitats of the park”; maintenance, improvement or restoration of imperiled species populations and habitats; removal of exotic and invasive plants and animals; and development and maintenance of “the capital facilities and infrastructure necessary to meet the goals and objectives of this management plan.”

The document does call for the conversion of the former STOP Camp area to “a revenue-generating use that is compatible with the Florida Park Service mission.” Because of the park’s proximity to “prosperous urban centers of southwest Florida,” the draft says, that area is “very suitable for the location of a premier ecotourism center. This concession-operated facility would be equipped with an auditorium and conference rooms along with lodging and dining opportunities for individuals, organizations, and tour groups from around the world.” Its estimated cost, the draft says, is $4 million.

A graphic shows the full scope of the park. Image courtesy FDEP

The draft adds, “An array of activities, programs, and tours could be provided to feature the ecosystems, wildlife, and history of the park and surrounding area. An outfitter shop to provide visitors with equipment and supplies for various eco-adventures should be considered as a potential concession.”

On a smaller scale, the draft proposes expanding the park’s picnicking opportunities with the addition of pavilions in the Clay Gully Picnic Area and the Upper Myakka Lake Day Use Area, as well as expansion of wildlife observation activities through the construction of a new visitor center and viewing platform within the Upper Myakka Lake Day Use Area.

If this draft plan is given final approval, the document explains, it will replace the management plan adopted in 2004.

A brief history of the park

As the draft explains, the park is located east of Sarasota, with its land divided between Sarasota and Manatee counties. Access is provided on State Road 72, 9 miles east of that road’s intersection with Clark Road; and on State Road 780, but only on weekends and holidays.

A sandhill crane makes itself at home in the park. Photo courtesy of Fran Palmeri

The Florida Board of Forestry initially acquired the property on June 23, 1936, the draft plan says. On Jan. 23, 1968, the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund leased the site to the state’s Division of Recreation and Parks, which is part of FDEP.

The total area of the park is 37,198.91 acres, the draft notes. “The purpose of Myakka River State Park is to preserve the natural beauty, wildlife, and historical features of this property, to serve as an important link in the chain of protected lands in the southern portion of the state, and to provide outstanding outdoor recreation and natural resource interpretation for the benefit of the people of Florida,” the draft adds.

“The park provides habitat for numerous imperiled wildlife species,” the draft continues. Among them are Audubon’s crested caracara, the Florida sandhill crane, the little blue heron, the gopher tortoise and Sherman’s fox squirrel. Florida black bears, Florida panthers and manatees also have been documented within the property, the draft notes.