State parks extend gold medal record

Kayakers take advantage of the calm water and inviting scenery at Silver Springs State Park.

The Florida Park Service is the Michael Phelps of state parks. Not unlike the famous swimmer, who has the most Olympic gold medals, Florida has more gold medals than any other state park system in America. Florida extended its record on Tuesday when the National Recreation and Park Association awarded Florida an unprecedented fourth National Gold Medal Award for the nation’s best-managed state park system. Every year, Florida’s network of 175 state parks draws millions of visitors and inspires thousands of volunteers who help maintain the parks’ award-winning status. Today is one of the biggest days for volunteer projects in the parks — National Public Lands Day, the country’s largest single-day volunteer initiative supporting state and national parks.

Ted Wendel, a volunteer at Lake Griffin State Park who also serves as chairman of the park’s citizen support organization, said he takes pride in the state parks’ honor.

“I don’t think anywhere else has won it twice, and now we won it four times,” said Wendel, of the Village of Springdale. “It’s an acknowledgement of how great the state parks are.”

The Florida Park Service, a bureau of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, previously won the NRPA’s honor for state parks in 1999, 2005 and 2013.

It competed against three other finalists’ state park systems this year: Maryland, Tennessee and Washington, according to the NRPA, the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to promoting public parks, recreation and conservation.

Taylor Stein, an ecotourism researcher at the University of Florida, said he thinks the distinction for Florida’s state parks is as much an accolade for Florida’s natural environment.

State parks protect what he describes as Florida’s hidden gems, including old-growth pine forests, coral reefs and beaches without a condominium in sight. The parks drew 29.4 million visitors in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the DEP stated. It’s up 1.3 million visitors from the year prior.

Six state parks exist in the three-county area: Silver Springs in Ocala; Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Bushnell; Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon; Lake Louisa in Clermont; Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which is primarily in the Ocala area; and Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park.

“It’s not quite like going to the Grand Canyon,” said Mark Knapke, park manager of Lake Griffin State Park. “But all the parks have unique features in their own way that the state decided needs to be preserved.”

State parks are where people can enter Florida’s natural environment to paddle through lakes, rivers and springs; go hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding on trails; and learn about the history and culture of Florida.

They also protect habitat for wildlife like manatees, alligators, bears, deer and birds.

“They’ll get a firsthand view of wildlife in action,” said Darrell Thomas, park services specialist at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City.

Because so much of Florida’s environment is protected under state ownership, it also means people can visit it, Stein said.

“When they hear ‘state park,’ that means, we can go see an alligator and see these swamps,” he said. “That’s a double message that gets across: It’s not just a wonderful environment. We can go see that environment.”

Seeing Florida’s environment in person often motivates the public to care more about how their state parks are managed and how they look, Stein said.

That level of care is necessary to preserve the state’s natural and cultural resources for future generations, he said.

Park managers owe much of the acclaim for state parks to its army of volunteers, who supplement the work of paid staff.

More than 14,400 volunteers and 82 citizen support organizations give more than 1.2 million hours of service each year, the DEP stated.

And although national parks tend to attract more attention, Stein said state parks are destinations where people have easy and affordable access to the country’s greatest ecological treasures.

“We have a great environment, and state parks’ point is to provide access to it,” Stein said. “You can have a great roller coaster, but if you don’t provide access to that roller coaster, it’s not a great park.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.