Surveying parks in the early years
In 1899, the Florida Legislature authorized the erection of a monument at Olustee in recognition of the 1864 Confederate victory in Florida's largest Civil War battle. This is the earliest established unit of what is now the Florida State Park system. During the following decades, several other historic memorials came into state ownership, including Dade Battlefield, Natural Bridge Battlefield and Gamble Plantation. The Florida Legislature authorized the creation of Royal Palm Hammock State Park in 1915, and although it remained in private hands until it became part of Everglades National Park, it has the distinction of being the first official reference to a state park.
The 1925 Legislature created the 'Florida State Park system' to provide free parks "... 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. State parks were not a priority of Florida's state government until the Great Depression and the subsequent creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. The CCC provided conservation-related work programs for unemployed young men. In order to benefit from the CCC program, the 1933 Legislature directed the Board of Forestry to survey the state for lands suitable for reforestation projects, state forests and state parks.
Establishment of Florida Park Service, 1935
The gate at Hillsborough River State Park, one of Florida's first state parks
As a result, the Florida Park Service was established in 1935 under the Board of Forestry. C. H. Schaeffer, an assistant state forester, was named the first 'park director.' Emphasis was placed on the rapid acquisition of donated park properties and the development of trails and facilities through the establishment of CCC camps. In 1936, the state park system consisted of seven units and by 1938 two more state parks had been added. The 1941 Legislature changed the name of the Florida Board of Forestry to the Florida Board of Forestry and Parks in recognition of the expanding state park system.
With the prospect of global war, the CCC program lost priority and the state was forced to carry the financial burden of the state park system by itself. However, state appropriations for new park acquisitions and development were suspended in 1939 and would not be resumed for almost a decade. The CCC camps disbanded one by one, park development came to a virtual standstill and the overall level of operations declined. Highlands Hammock State Park was closed entirely, except by appointment. Parts of Myakka River, Gold Head Branch and Fort Clinch state parks were leased to the Army for military purposes. Nevertheless, in 1945, the Legislature placed the Florida Park Service on a level equal to the Florida Forest Service under the Board of Forestry and Parks.
In 1944, Collier-Seminole State Park was added the list. The park, in Naples, is home to the Florida royal palm
In 1947, State Senator, future Governor Leroy Collins and two of his colleagues sponsored a resolution providing for a joint Senate-House committee to plan the enhancement of the state park system. The result was the Collins Bill, which created an independent state park agency called the Board of Parks and Historic Memorials. The act consolidated all historic monuments, memorials and similar sites then administered by various autonomous commissions under the new board. The new board immediately began an effort to lobby for increased state park funding and development. Much of the effort was based on the position that state parks had a major potential role in promoting tourism and recreational opportunities.
Starting in 1953, the Legislature responded with increased funding. The operating budget for that fiscal year was almost half-again that of the previous year. For the first time, a significant appropriation was made for fixed capital purposes. Equally significant appropriations were made for each biennium thereafter.
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas helps cut the cake at the opening ceremonies for Oleta River State Park in North Miami
By 1963, the state park system had expanded to 55 units. A total of 75,869 acres had been acquired for state park purposes for only $346,000. However, most of the parks acquired were in the northern part of the state, while the population was growing faster in the southern part. To correct this imbalance, additional parks would have to be selected and acquired on a more systematic basis.
The passage of the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Act in 1963 provided a means to acquire public land other than by donation or legislative line-item appropriation. The act created the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Program and the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which used tax revenue to support bond sales for the purchase of parks and recreation areas. By mid-1969, 13 additional state park properties had been bought or designated for purchase at an aggregate cost of $28,067,000 and nine of these were in central and south Florida.
In 1969, the Legislature merged the Board of Parks and Historic Memorials and the Outdoor Recreational Development Council into the Division of Recreation and Parks within the new Department of Natural Resources. The agency name and its organizational structure were different - staff reported to the governor and cabinet rather than to a citizen board. However, the Florida Park Service mission was not materially changed.
A unit classification system was adopted in 1972 to recognize important distinctions among the state park properties. Six categories were used: state park, state recreation area, state special feature site (e.g., archaeological, historical, geological, botanical), state preserve, state ornamental garden and state museum. Many other organizational improvements included the adoption of written policies for all aspects of park administration, a unified operations manual, an inventory of park properties, the expansion of districts, the hiring of professional park planners to design new facilities and a classification and justification system for field positions.
Since the establishment of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund in 1963, five other 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.' Â The second source was the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) Program, created in 1979, which incorporated the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. The third source was the 1981 Save Our Coast Program which sold $275 million in bonds. A fourth significant source of funding was the Florida Preservation 2000 program, which was a 10-year, $3 billion bond program created by the 1990 Legislature. The fifth program, Florida Forever, started in 2001 and was another 10-year $3 billion commitment for public land acquisition. Unlike Preservation 2000, Florida Forever allowed bond funds to be used for facilities development, ecological resstoration and certain other land management activities. In 2008 Florida Forever was renewed for another 10 years.
The Division of Recreation and Parks had been in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) since 1969, but in 1993, DNR merged with the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation to create the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The new agency was positioned directly under the Governor, rather than under the Governor and Cabinet.
Florida Leads the Nation
Florida Park Service Director holds the coveted Gold Medal. Other staff share in accepting the award.
Over the years, the Florida Park Service has become a national leader in state park management. It was recognized by the National Recreation and Park Association as the best state park system in 2000 and 2005, making it the only two-time winner of the National Gold Medal for state parks.