Proposed cattle grazing in state parks

Ranchers and cattle industry experts weigh in on the how and why

ALDO LEOPOLD — scientist, environmentalist and father of wildlife management — said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” An adaptation of that vision is the proposal by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson to allow cattle to graze by lease on Florida state park lands in an effort to make the parks self-sustaining. However, most coverage is not giving the proposal the fair shake it deserves. There are many positive facets to consider above and beyond creating revenue.

Ned Waters, former president and current vice president of the Polk County Cattleman’s Association, refutes the argument that cattle are not part of Florida’s native ecosystem. “Our ecosystem has evolved to what it is today with grazers for hundreds of years. Many of the parks and other lands that we treasure have come to be what we know it as with the presence of grazers.” He points out that it’s been more than 500 years since Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida and introduced cattle to the land.

However, you don’t even have to go back very far in Florida’s past to see the effects of cattle grazing at state parks, maintains Florida Cattleman’s Association President Henry Kempfer. “There’s at least six different state parks where there’s already grazing going on right now,” he states. Waters agrees, saying “It’s not a new concept. It’s been around a long time.” According to Kempfer and Waters, leased cattle are already grazing on state parks like Polk County’s Colt Creek and Catfish Creek. Furthermore, the state has its own herds grazing on a number of state parks as part of “living history” displays. Waters points out that Lake Kissimmee State Park and Paynes Prairie historically had thousands of heads of cattle roaming over the land, and the state maintains herds of original “Cracker” cattle there. Furthermore, there are cattle-grazing leases on Florida state forest lands, water management districts, county lands, and more.

Proponents maintain that, in all cattle grazing, management is key. Agriculturalists care greatly about the land and environment, and Waters observes that the cattle would only be present in appropriate areas; “it’s not all the land or all the state park; it’s just the parts that are suitable for grazing.” Kempfer adds that “producers are very conscientious” with land, and would “want to even take better care of someone else’s land.” He confirms that ecology-friendly policies such as grazing rotation and low stocking rates would be utilized.

Furthermore, Bridget Carlisle Stice, an extension agent with UF/IFAS in Polk County, points out that owners of the cattle would provide additional eyes on the land and other benefits. “Often, public lands that are not used for grazing are not well managed and invasive and non-native species take over,” she explains. “This is detrimental to the native plants and animals and causes an imbalance. Grazing cattle is an excellent way to maintain the lands in their natural state. Cattle ranchers are truly ‘stewards of the land.’ ”

Essentially, state parks would receive additional revenue and more hands to better manage the land. It’s what Aldo Leopold might have called a “win-win” situation.


article by ERIKA ALDRICH

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