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Environmentalists take aim at cattle grazing proposal for Myakka River State Park

MANATEE -- A proposal to allow cattle grazing at Myakka River State Park has infuriated environmentalists in Manatee and Sarasota counties and, in one week, garnered more than 1,700 signatures on a petition opposing the change.

The opposition is symbolized in a bumper sticker: "Don't mess with My Akka."

Leading the charge against allowing grazing at state parks is local environmental activist Jono Miller.

"No one was telling us, the locals, that this was in the works," Miller said. "It represents a fundamental change in how we manage our parks. It seems like someone got to Gov. Rick Scott, but we don't know who that is."

The park, he said, has little of the fencing, water holes, or range land that would be necessary.

"They are trying to outfit the park for a meager cattle operation," Miller said. "It's a really inappropriate site for cattle."

The draft grazing plan being studied at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection includes a proposal for 315 animals on 6,500 acres on the southeast corner of the 37,000-acre park, separated by State Road 72.

"But this has not been finalized and is subject to change. We continue to research and evaluate internally and with other land management experts such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service," Dee Ann Miller of the DEP Press Office wrote in

an email to the Bradenton Herald.

Cattle grazing is just one part of a massive multiple use policy shift that soon will affect other parks with possibilities such as well fields and cell phone towers, asserts the petition at change.org.

While Myakka River State Park may be one of the first to be reviewed by Tallahassee, it doesn't appear that it would be the last.

"Florida is home to 171 diverse state parks and trails, ranging in size from less than 1 acre to 77,000 acres. They were acquired for -- and are managed for -- very different purposes," Miller wrote. "That is why any potential activities will be thoroughly reviewed and vetted on a park-by-park basis, and all activities will be guided by each individual park's unit management plan. Each park has unique management considerations, and these plans account for them, and are developed in an open and transparent manner with multiple opportunities for public comment."

Glenn Compton, chairman of environmental watchdog group ManaSota-88, also voiced concern about the grazing proposal.

"People choose to vacation and move to Florida largely due to its abundance of natural beauty and outdoor activities. If we start to allow the ecological integrity of these invaluable resources to degrade, we risk losing millions to reduced tourism and economic growth," Compton wrote in an email. "It is hard to believe that allowing for grazing would be an economically sound decision as the fees received will most likely be a drop in the bucket compared to the dollars that would be put at risk."

"To expect state parks and natural areas be commercially viable entities is not in line with the philosophy of environmental conservation, and if the recent passage of Amendment 1 by a 75 percent vote shows anything, it proves that Floridians are more than willing to use public dollars towards the continued preservation of natural resources," Compton stated.

Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county's parks and natural resources department, sees cattle grazing on public lands differently from those who oppose it.

Properly managed, cattle grazing can be a good thing for proper land management, he said, while over-grazing is always a bad thing.

"Many family farms were among our first conservationists. Cattle and Florida land management have gone together since cattle were introduced into Florida in the 16th century," Hunsicker said.

Until recently, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's cattle operation used the county's Duette Preserve to graze its cattle, Hunsicker noted. Those grazing lands are now being returned to natural ground cover.

Ranchers and timber interests can help defray the costs of maintaining parks and other government-owned land, said Jim Strickland, a Myakka City rancher and past president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association.

"I do love Myakka River State Park," Strickland said. He also noted that the area of the proposed grazing lease appears to be away from areas used by most visitors.

Sarasota County allows cattle grazing on leases on publicly owned Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and a portion of Walton Ranch preserve. Those two parcels total 2,869 acres.

The DEP continually looks for opportunities to expand visitor services and recreation as well as make parks and lands more self-sustaining, Dee Ann Miller wrote.

"This both benefits taxpayers and ensures natural resources are protected into the future by guaranteeing that the parks system will be able to fund operations to achieve its ultimate goals of ecosystem restoration, resource-based recreation and land management and conservation," she stated.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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