The Wakulla Springs Alliance has come out against plans by Tallahassee Community College’s new Wakulla Environmental Institute to develop a campground near Cherokee Sink.
TCC intends to lease from the state 2,000 acres adjacent to Wakulla Springs State Park for an educational training site, including a 60-site RV and tent campground.
In a letter to Florida Division of Recreation and Parks Director Donald Forgione, alliance acting chairman Rodney DeHan said the group voted unanimously last week to oppose the project, contending WEI has not presented a plan with enough detail for the Department of Environmental Protection to make an informed decision.
“We believe the focus of any proposal for this valuable tract which lies within a very vulnerable watershed should be conservation and restoration, rather an intensive recreational use,” the letter said. “If approved, this project would be by far the largest lease of state park property every granted by FDEP. Approving this lease would amount to a fundamental change in state park management practices in Florida and must be very carefully evaluated.”
DEP plans to hold a public meeting on the Cherokee Sink lease proposal at 7 p.m. June 17 at the Woodville branch library.
The request for a 50-year sublease of the property, located west of State Road 61 across from Wakulla Springs Lodge, was sent May 6 to Forgione by WEI executive director Bob Ballard. In the letter, Ballard said the parcel is the only one in Wakulla County suitable to meet the new institute’s need for hands-on training of entry-level land managers and outdoor-recreation and park-hospitality students.
Ballard, who has twice met with the science-based spring advocacy group to discuss the WEI proposal, said the alliance members have asked good questions that have helped strengthen the plan.
“We want to continue to make this project better and we look forward to help from the springs alliance to make this better so we can move forward,” he said Friday.
The Cherokee Sink tract was purchased by the state in 1999 for $5.2 million from the St. Joe Co., to protect water quality in the vast, 200- to 300-feet-deep subterranean cave system that connects to Wakulla Spring and other nearby springs and sinkholes. The property, which was clear cut about 35 years ago, was made a part of Wakulla Springs State Park, but lacking money and resources, park staff members have been unable to undertake proper restoration of the land.
The WEI campground plan at Cherokee Sink is similar to one pitched in 2011 by DEP, when Ballard served as deputy secretary. That proposal, part of an agency effort to boost state-park revenue, included 120 campsites on 60 acres, as well as 12 equestrian camping areas, but it was halted following widespread public opposition.
The alliance, in its letter, said it is “perplexing” that such a major lease proposal would be so quickly given a public hearing “with no documentation beyond a two-page letter.”
“The current process appears to be moving on an accelerated time frame that does not allow adequate time for full consideration of public concerns,” said the letter, which includes a list of questions and comments.
WEI’s current proposal reduces by half the number of campsites previously envisioned, prohibits horses and calls for development at the highest environmental standards. The campground restrooms and all RV sites would be connected to the county central sewer system, and the sewer lines would be specially modified where they cross the underground cave system to avoid sewage spills in case of a broken pipe. Septic tanks, which are a leading cause of spring water-quality problems, would not be allowed.
Along with the 60 RV and tent sites, the proposed 200-acre campground would include 10 yurts, a ranger station with three offices, as well as a restroom and picnic pavilion at Cherokee Sink, a long-popular local swimming hole that has been closed to the public for years because of water-quality problems. The campground also would include access to Wakulla Springs State Park.
The rest of the parcel would be restored to its natural state in phases, replacing invasive species with natives such as longleaf pines and wire grasses, along with proper management techniques such as prescribed fire. Both the campground and the surrounding land would serve as a teaching laboratory for upcoming resource managers, Ballard said.
Development of the campground would cost about $3 million, to be borrowed by a new TCC limited-liability corporation. The park service would enforce compliance with the terms of the use agreement. If conditions weren’t met, the land would go back to the state’s care.