Privatization & Management of Natural Areas

The President’s Hoot
Richard Baker, Ph.D.
February 2005

Our government in Washington is discussing outsourcing the management of our National Wildlife Refuges, which are currently being managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to budget restraints some positions in the Service are not being filled, as some of the more experienced staff retire, they may not be replaced. Discussions are being held at the national and state levels to privatize the management of our refuges, preserves, forests, wetlands and water resources. Even at the state level, state preserves are being converted in the name of organizational efficiency into state parks. This happened right here in Indian River County.

Our own St. Sebastian River Buffer Preserve (purchased in part by Indian River County taxpayers to protect the St. Sebastian River and Indian River Lagoon) was recently turned over to the state parks folks to manage and is now called the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park. We were assured that it is only a name change and not a change in mission. The jury is still out on this as the old buffer preserve leader has left, and a new state park leader will be taking over.

Why should we care about this? National and state parks try to accommodate both nature and humans, not always to the total satisfaction of either. The emphasis is to give humans a comfortable and safe experience. Some state parks now have cabins with TV and Internet connections. I, like most people, enjoy visiting our parks. But sometimes making an area safe and comfortable jeopardizes the natural balance of nature, which preserves are established to save.

Parks versus Preserves and Refuges.

As a noun, park is generally defined as “a tract of land reserved for public use sometimes kept in its natural state. It may have extensive gardens, woods, pastures, and game preserves.” A preserve on the other hand is more restrictive and defined as “an area set aside for the protection of wildlife or natural resources. Something held to be restricted to the use of certain persons, to keep safe, to maintain unchanged, to keep or maintain intact.” Natural preserves focus primarily on “conservation”. A refuge is similar to a preserve and is “a place that protects from danger or hardship, a place that provides protection or shelter.” A conservation area is even more restrictive, “ an act or process of conserving, controlled use and systematic protection of natural resources, as forests and waterways.” In nature we generally think of naturally occurring plants and animals as being worthy of conservation, preservation, or refuge, whereas humans are the ones served by parks.

In Indian River County, some of the lands purchased with county and state funds are managed by the county’s park and recreation department, which historically has had little expertise in dealing with preserves and refuges. An example, the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area was purchased in 1991 with joint funding from Indian River County and the St. Johns River Water Management District before the 1992 bond referendum to preserve coastal uplands and wetlands on the Indian River Lagoon. A joint county-district agreement assigned the county with the management of the conservation area, and the county assigned the area’s management to its parks and recreation department. Recently in the name of “citizen safety and concern for too many termites in the park,” the park staff unnecessarily cleared and removed native understory plants widening the normal 2-3 foot backcountry trails to trails up to 24 ft. wide.

The concern for safety and fear of termites was unjustified in the opinion of many who care about ORCA, including the ORCA Advisory Council which was assembled with experts to provide advice on ORCA management, and the many trained ORCA nature guides who volunteer their time and expertise to carefully preserve the pristine nature of ORCA, and who take pride in leading guided walks on the trails. Neither of these groups was consulted before the careless trail widening and removal of native plants was done. Now that this area has been disturbed, it will be open to invasive plants including exotics, whose limitation is the major function of the joint county-district management plan!

Obviously the public should have the opportunity to respectfully appreciate and enjoy its preserves and refuges, and yet they must be managed for the purpose for which they were originally purchased. I have great concern at all levels– federal, state, and county– about how we manage our preserves, refuges, and conservation areas in Indian River County, park staff need to be educated on how to manage our conservation areas. At the state and national level, we need to discuss the implications of privatizing the management of our public owned refuges and preserves. Giving this precious responsibility to the lowest bidder is not likely to accomplish our goals of preservation and conservation, and when these natural assets are destroyed, they cannot be recreated.

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