Tallahassee Community College’s Wakulla Environmental Institute hopes to train a generation of future park rangers, and they believe a tract of land on the west side of Wakulla Springs State Park could be the perfect classroom. The nearly 2,000 acre parcel includes Cherokee Sink, a popular swimming hole closed in 2009.
The plan calls for a 50-year lease on the land to build a campground, conduct ecological restoration, and – of course – re-open Cherokee Sink to swimmers. An initial public hearing Tuesday night drew more than 100 to the Woodville Community Center for public comment.
The Institute’s Executive Director Bob Ballard says the planned campground is an opportunity to give students hands-on experience.
“People think park rangers are out in the woods all the time – they’re doing prescribed burns, or they’re doing invasive plant management, [but] about 80% of their time is spent with hospitality issues, dealing with people that come into state parks,” Ballard says.
The project is a scaled back version of a proposal Ballard made in 2011 when he was deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That idea was scrapped in response to public criticism. The current plan calls for a 60-site campground, two paved parking lots and roads, as well as a boardwalk surrounding Cherokee Sink.
Former president of the Friends of Wakulla Springs, and co-founder of the Wakulla Springs Alliance Ron Piasecki is advising TCC on the project. He says the plan is just a first draft, but he thinks the school can be an important partner for the state parks service.
“Here’s an organization that’s willing to put up $3.5 million to do a lot of things that the parks would do if they could,” Piasecki says. “This is a concept that is just getting started. Bear with it; let’s all work together.”
But not everyone was happy with the proposal. Sandy Cook, former manager of the Wakulla Springs State Park, says TCC shouldn’t build a campsite on the land.
“I’d like to offer an alternative to this proposal: TCC should talk to Wakulla County about the management of the Newport Campground. It’s on trustee’s land, it was built with a FRDAP grant, public land public money, and it wouldn’t cost TCC $3 million,” Cook says.
TCC’s final proposal has yet to be submitted, and there will be further opportunities for public comment.