Government dismisses trails, greenways ideas
By Ron Cunningham, GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR's NOTE: Ron Cunningham is a Gainesville cyclist, Journalist, and Executive Director of Bike Florida. The Cycle Chronicler has pulled out his soap box one last time this year to rant about your tax dollars at work.
It's an odd irony of modern life that our so-called information highway too often divides us one against the other, while an old fashion trail tends to bring us together.
On any given day on the Internet conservatives are ripping into "brainless" liberals, while liberals condemn "heartless" conservatives. It always seems to be "us against them" in the daily argument of virtual life.
Ah, but give us a trail. Just a narrow strip of asphalt, gravel or dirt that seems to be going somewhere - over that hill, around that bend, along that river, through those trees and beyond - and we long to set our two feet (or our two wheels) down upon it and go. Sometimes in ones and twos. Sometimes in groups.
I was pondering this odd irony while spending two days in a large meeting room inside the Department of Environmental Protection's cavernous headquarters in Tallahassee. I had been asked to represent a member of Florida Greenways and Trails Council who was unable to attend. Basically we were there to approve proposals for new trails and greenways acquisitions for potential state funding.
And here's the interesting thing. The people who came before us: Small town folks from the conservative panhandle, liberals from Alachua and Miami-Dade counties - people who represent a cross-section of the political spectrum and who would likely agree on very little in the daily argument of virtual life - all made the journey to Tallahassee because they are passionate about the same thing:
Trails and Greenways.
The mayor of tiny Keystone Heights wants to build a trailhead so users of the Lake Butler-Palatka Trail might stop in his town for a while and maybe spend a little money.
In Miami and in Kissimmee they aspire to build major multimodal corridors that will be used by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of city dwellers.
Commissioners in Newberry and High Springs want a trail that will connect their two towns because they are hoping to generate some ecotourism in their stretch of rural Alachua County.
Up in Hamilton County they are looking buy some private land that will allow hikers access to miles of continuous trail along the very banks of the Suwannee River.
In Dixie County they are anxious to preserve a gem of nature, Shired Island - a favorite destination for fishermen, paddle boarders, and kayakers - against encroaching development.
In Tallahassee they are piecing together an ambitious "linear park" that will ultimately connect Lake Lafeyette to the tiny coastal town of St. Marks far to the south.
The unifying theme of each and every request was one of - well unity. The message we heard over and over again was: We want to bring people together to enjoy the very best that natural Florida has to offer. And if we can generate a little positive economic activity out of that, then so much the better.
From my perspective it was a great way to spend a couple of days. Or at least it should have been.
But the reality is that, collectively, the proposals we voted to add to the state's trail and Greenways "A list" would cost tens of millions of dollars.
The Office of Greenways and Trails has $2 million to spend.
And even that seems a bonanza. In some recent years even less money has been on the table.
"That's why I voted for Amendment 1," complained Sam Carr, a council member from Putnam County. "I expected to be able to use that money on exactly these kinds of projects. They just stole that money away from us."
By "they" he meant the Florida Legislature.
Last year Florida voters overwhelmingly (by a 75 percent margin) approved Amendment 1, a state constitutional mandate to spend something like $750 million a year in documentary stamp tax funds for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands, wetlands and related projects. By all logic, parks, greenways and trails should have figured heavily into that overall land and water conservation initiative.
A popular mandate.
Straight from the people.
The Legislature has simply refused to follow the will of the people in regard to Amendment 1. It is a stunning rebuke to the voters: We don't care what you want. We'll decide how to spend our money.
Their arrogance and presumption is stunning. And litigation has been filed to force the Legislature to follow the Amendment 1 mandate. But historically the courts have been reluctant to interfere in the Legislature's appropriations prerogatives. Still, hope springs eternal.
I don't know how the legal fight over Amendment 1 will turn out. But it seems to me - especially after spending two days listening to trails and greenway requests from around the state - that preserving the best of natural Florida, and connecting people with natural Florida, and building local economies on Florida's natural assets are all unifying themes that ought to transcend our political schisms.
We get that in Gainesville. They get that in Dixie County. And in Marianna and in Miami and in Keystone Heights and elsewhere.
Why don't they get that in Tallahassee? Why don't they get that in the Governor's Mansion. In the halls of legislative power?
"Buy land, they ain't makin' it anymore," the cowboy philosopher Will Rogers once said.
Are our politicians so riven by our net-generated divisions that they've lost the will to act on those things that actually bring us together?