From a mere concept in 1935, Florida’s state park system has expanded to one of the largest and most heavily used systems in the country. Containing over 161 parks, 10 state trails, nearly 800,000 acres, 100 miles of beaches and more than 1,500 miles of multi-use trails and with an annual operating budget in excess of $80 million, the state park system today represents a major commitment by the State of Florida to the preservation of its scenic resources and provision of outstanding recreation opportunities for its people.
When Florida finally took steps in 1935 to establish a system of state parks, the primary impetus came, not from recognition of a need for public parks, but from a desire to take advantage of a federal depression-era program designed to provide work for the nation’s idle youth. Whatever the circumstances and motivation, however the chain of events set in motion by those efforts of the 1930’s put Florida in the state park business for good.
Setting the Stage
Interest in setting aside sites for park related purposes had been demonstrated as early as 1899, when the Florida Legislature created a commission to erect a monument at Olustee, in Baker County, the site of a significant Confederate victory in a 1864 battle of the war between the States. This is the earliest established unit of what is now the Florida State Park system.
During the next several decades, the State pursued a number of similar projects with general success. In 1921, projects were undertaken to preserve the site of the Dade massacre, in Sumter County, the battle that marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War, and to commemorate battles of the War between the States at Marianna, in Jackson County, and Natural Bridge, in Leon County. In addition, a memorial was authorized for the site of the drafting of Florida’s first state constitution, at present-day Port St. Joe, in Gulf County. In 1925, the Legislature made similar provisions for preserving the Gamble mansion, in Manatee County, for establishment of a memorial to Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, who reputedly took refuge there in his flight to avoid capture at the close of the war between the States. All of these sites were eventually transferred into the state park system.
While establishing historic memorials was obviously the main focus of the Legislature’s interest during these early years, other developments were taking place that set the stage for creation of more traditional parks. In 1915, the Legislature conveyed 960 acres in Dade County to the Florida Federation of Women’s Club for a Royal Palm State Park – a misnomer, as the park never came under the jurisdiction of the State. The park was dedicated in 1916 and expanded in 1921 by legislative conveyance of an additional 2,080 acres adjacent to the original tract. Eventually, this entire property was transferred to the United States for inclusion in a new Everglades National Park.
Some years later, Highlands Hammock, in Highlands and Hardee Counties, was acquired with private funds solicited through the efforts of the Tropical Florida Parks Association, a non-profit organization formed for that purpose in 1929. The area was fenced, improved and opened to the public in 1931, still under private auspices. Soon afterward, it became one of the very first units of the new Florida State Park system.
Up until this time, there had been little thought given to a system of state parks per se. These early efforts had been largely sporadic and independent. In a noteworthy gesture that proved to be slightly ahead of its time, however, the Legislature in 1925 passed a law creating a “Florida State Park System” under the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, an existing board composed of the governor and four cabinet officers. Lands acquired for the system were to provide free use “…for the purpose of public recreation or for the preservation of natural beauty or historic association.” Unfortunately, no funds were appropriated to implement the law, and a state park system under the Trustees never happened.
More successful was a law passed in 1927 creating a State Board of Forestry and its subsidiary agency, the Florida Forest Service. Although the original mission did not include any direct land management function, for either forestry or park purposes, the establishment of such an agency is important, as it became the vehicle by which the state park system came into being several years later.
Obviously, state parks were not a high priority of Florida’s state government as the Depression decade of the 1930’s began. The situation was abruptly changed, however, by the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. The CCC was a highly successful program designed to provide conservation-related work for unemployed young men. The catch was that, in order to take full advantage of the program, Florida would have to make available public lands, such as state forests and parks, on which the work could be conducted.
Since Florida had neither state forests nor state parks, the 1933 Legislature quickly passed a law directing the Board of Forestry to “...conduct investigations and make surveys to determine the areas of land in the state which are available and suitable for reforestation projects, state forests and state parks.” Lands identified through this process were authorized to be acquired by any appropriate agency and placed under the Board of Forestry for management. As no funds were appropriated for this purpose, land acquisitions were pursued largely through donation, and deferred payment purchase. Of the numerous properties hastily considered, parts of two were acquired for state forest purposes, later to be transferred to the new state park system (O’Leno, in Alachua and Columbia Counties, and Myakka River, in Sarasota and Manatee Counties), and parts of two others were acquired directly for state park purposes (Highlands Hammock, in Highlands and Hardee Counties, and Hillsborough River in Hillsborough County).
A PARK SYSTEM is BORN
With the CCC Program fully operational in Florida and the Board of Forestry actively pursuing the acquisition of land, the stage was appropriately set in 1935 for the formal establishment of a state park system — even if only as a by product of a broader campaign to advance forestry interests in Florida. Responding to the initiative of newly elected Governor David Scholtz, the Legislature enacted a comprehensive package of seven laws dealing with forestry and parks. One of these authorized the Florida Board of Forestry “…to establish the ‘Florida Park Service’ and to establish, develop and maintain a system of state parks.” Another act provided for the Board of Forestry to under take a broad land acquisition program for forest and park purposes “…in order to cooperate for federal agencies and to enable the State of Florida to more fully qualify for the aid and assistance offered by presidential executive orders and federal legislation providing for the establishment and operation of CCC camps.” The sum of $25,000 for each year of the biennium was appropriated for state park purposes and a like amount for state forests. Florida’s state parks finally had both a clear legislative mandate and funds with which to implement it.
Hoping to take maximum advantage of the CCC program the Board of Forestry moved quickly to carry out the intent of the new legislation. Harry Lee Baker, Florida’s first state forester, assumed the new titled of “stage forester and park executive” and named C. H. Schaeffer, formerly an assistant state forester, as the first “park director.” Primary emphasis was placed on the acquisition of additional park properties and the establishment of CCC camps to undertake park development. In 1936, the state park system consisted of seven units, four of which had active CCC camps in operation. By 1938, two more state parks had been added and six CCC camps were functioning. Under the CCC program, eight of these first nine state park properties were provided with basic facilities and opened to public use. In recognition of the expanding role of parks as a part of the agency’s overall responsibilities the 1941 Legislature changed the name of the Florida Board of Forestry to the Florida Board of Forestry and Parks, but specified that the parks director would continue to work under the supervision of the state forester and park executive.
Starting from nothing in 1935, the development of Florida’s state park system during the CCC period was steady and even spectacular. By the end of 1940, however, with the prospect of global war growing daily, the CCC program was fast losing priority in Washington. Funds and manpower diminished rapidly. Although all of the state park CCC camps were still operating, six of the eleven forestry camps had already been closed. In 1945, the Legislature passed a law placing the Florida Park Service directly under the Board of Forestry and Parks, on level equal to the Florida Forest Service, a further acknowledgment of the importance of parks as a distinct state governmental function.
INDEPENDENCE AND A NEW BEGINNING
Even as state government began returning to normal after the war, there was little immediate improvement in store for the state park system. Now separate from the state forestry agency — although still reporting to the same board — the Florida Park Service appeared to be only more an orphan then a stepchild. Park attendance regained its pre-war level in 1945 and continued to climb in subsequent years, but still no funds were made available to develop and operate the growing number of park properties acquired since CCC days.
In 1947, then State Senator, later to become Governor, Leroy Collins with two of his colleagues, sponsored a concurrent resolution “…providing for the appointment of a joint Senate-House committee to plan and prepare a program for the integration, development and extension of the state parks and monuments.” The product of the committee’s work was a comprehensive state parks act passed by the 1949 Legislature, which remains virtually intact today as the statutory basis for Florida’s state park system.
The Collins Bill, as it was know at the time, recognized in its preamble the difference between the State’s forestry program and its park program, and provided for a new independent state parks agency called the Board of Parks and Historic Memorials, administered by a five member citizen board appointed by the governor. The act also provided for historic monuments, memorials and similar sites then administered by various autonomous commissions to be consolidated under the new Board of Parks. Finally, along with a wide array of specific powers and responsibilities, the Collins bill prescribed a new comprehensive statement of policy which was to set the tone for Florida’s state parks program from that time forward.
In spite of the painstaking efforts of the joint committee and legislature to create a state of the art state parks act, implementation did not proceed without difficulty. The first members of the Board of Parks were appointed in July of 1949 by then Governor Fuller Warren and John D. Pennekamp of Miami was elected chairman. The other four members had all had some previous involvement with state parks, and consequently most had pre-conceived ideas as to what the Florida state park system should be and how it should be run. Although the park system expanded rapidly over the next several years, and also enjoyed respectable increases in both visitation and revenues, the agency continued to be troubled by deep philosophical and managerial differences between certain board members and the professional administrators.
THE PARK SYSTEM MATURES
For almost two decades following the internal difficulties that marked the early 1950’s, the state park system enjoyed a period of relative stability and progress under the Board of Parks and Historic Memorials. The board forcefully asserted itself as the policy making body for the agency, and began to pursue its own concept of a state parks program. In submitting the agency’s annual report to Governor Dan McCarty in early 1953, board chairman Mrs. Elizabeth Towers, of Jacksonville, remarked pointedly that “…it took the board more than two years to remove the paralyzing doctrines it had inherited, and begin finally to make parks and memorials the playgrounds of the people.” The statement bespoke a major shift in emphasis in the development and operation of the state park system — away from preservation and more toward physical improvement of the parks to support increased public use.
Starting in 1953, the Legislature evidenced greater interest in the state parks and provided more generously for their funding. The operating budget for the fiscal year was almost half again that of the previous year, and for the first time, a significant appropriation was made for fixed capital purposes. The 1953 appropriation of $465,405 enabled many long deferred improvements to be undertaken, including the very first road paving work in thirteen of the parks. Equally, significant appropriations were made for each biennium thereafter, although the amounts were never great enough to allow construction of anything but the most basic facilities.
By 1963, the state park system had been expanded to 55 units, of which 42 were at least minimally developed and opened to the public. While the system had not yet achieved national recognition, it nevertheless had experienced remarkable growth since its creation less than three decades before. A total of 75,869 acres of land had been acquired for state park purposes at an actual cash outlay of only $346,000. Although admirable in its own right, the practice of acquiring parklands largely through non-purchase methods inevitably resulted in a lack of geographical balance. Most of the parks acquired were in the northern part of the state, while the population — and therefore the recreation need — was growing faster in the southern part. It was obvious that to correct this imbalance additional parks would have to be selected and acquired on a more systematic basis. By passage of the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Act in 1963, the Legislature provided a means with which to address this important discrepancy.
The 1963 act created an Outdoor Recreational Development Council composed of the governor and cabinet and inter-agency Outdoor Recreational Planning Committee, and a Land Acquisition Trust Fund with specifically earmarked sources of revenue. It required that a comprehensive outdoor recreation plan be prepared, and that recreational land purchases, including state parks, be made in accordance with the plan. This became the principle mechanism for acquiring new state parks, and most of the proceeds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund were used for this purpose. Although random acquisitions were still pursued through donation and transfer, primary attention was directed toward the identification and purchase of recreational lands according to need. By mid 1969, thirteen additional state park properties had been bought or designated for purchase at an aggregate cost of $28,067,000. Nine of these were in central and south Florida. Florida’s loose collection of state parks was at last being forged into a true state park system.
REORGANIZATION AND CONTINUING EXPANSION
In 1969, following ratification of a new state constitution in the general election of 1968, the Florida Legislature undertook the mammoth task of reorganizing numerous separate state government agencies into not more than twenty-five new departments. In this process, the Board of Parks and Historic Memorials and the Outdoor Recreational development Council were merged into a Division of Recreation and Parks, within the new Department of Natural Resources. For the first time the two closely related concepts of “recreation” (the end product) and “parks” (the places where the product is delivered) were united in Florida’s State government. Only the agency name and its organizational structure –with the staff reporting ultimately to the governor and cabinet as head of the department, rather than to a citizen’s board — were fundamentally different. The mission was not materially changed. With time-tested policies and procedures still intact, the state park system has continued to progress under the new organization.
Florida’s state parks program has become more comprehensive, diversified and systematic since 1969. A unit classification system was adopted in 1972 to recognize important distinctions among the state park properties, and all aspects of planning and management have been carefully refined. For all of the qualitative improvements, however the most apparent and documentable measure of success is still the amount of growth and expansion the system experienced. In this respect, Florida has indeed excelled. In addition to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, two other highly significant funding sources for park and related land acquisition were provided through legislative action. The first was a $240 million general obligation bond issue authorized in 1972 for the purchase of “environmentally endangered” lands and recreation lands. The second source was a continuing Conservation and Recreation lands (CARL) Trust Fund, created in 1979. These two sources have contributed millions of dollars toward the purchase of lands, many of which were ultimately to augment Florida’s constantly expanding state park system.
A third significant source of funding, The Florida Preservation 2000 Trust Fund was created by the 1990 Legislature. Fifty percent of the approximately $300 million annually will be used to purchase lands under the above-mentioned CARL program. An additional $8.7 million and $3.9 million annually will be used to purchase inholdings and additions to state parks and abandoned railroad rights-of-way under the Rails to Trails Program, respectively.
Interested in learning more about the history of Florida’s State Parks? A Legacy of Green, The Making of Florida’s Magnificent State Park System by Ney C. Landrum, published in 2013, is the “story behind the story” of the development of Florida’s State Park system as seen through the eyes of Ney Landrum, Florida Park Service’s longest serving Director, 1970-1989.