Retiring Florida parks director Eric Draper ranks climate change as a major threat

In his time, state parks faced challenges but also won a national award

December 30, 2021 7:00 am

Eric Draper is retiring as overseer of Florida’s state park system. “I was recruited for my environmental credentials, not in spite of them,” he says. Credit: Eric Draper

Do you have a Florida bucket list? I do, and every new year is a chance to check my progress. I crossed another item off it the other day when I stopped in at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. I was there to see Lucifer.

The 210-acre state park in Citrus County features a “wildlife walk” that allows visitors to see panthers, manatees, roseate spoonbills, and its star resident, Lucifer, aka Lu the Hippo.

Lu is a holdover from the days when the park was a roadside attraction. For Lu to continue living at Homosassa Springs after the state took over, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles officially declared the popular hippo to be an honorary citizen of Florida.

Pro tip: Do NOT stand in Lu’s “splatter zone.” Trust me on this.

When people ask me what’s so great about Florida, I always make sure to mention our state park system. From the soaring dunes of Topsail Hill in the Panhandle to the depths of John Pennekamp in the Keys, Florida’s state parks provide a natural alternative to the artificial glitz of our theme parks.

They have a major economic impact, too, serving more than 28 million visitors and generating $2.4 billion in direct economic benefits to local communities. And some of them show off our quirky side, such as Falling Waters State Park, named for a 73-foot waterfall that disappears into the ground, and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which employs its own school of mermaids.

Craig Pittman with Lu the Hippo. Credit: Craig Pittman

Until recently, the guy in charge of this vast domain — 175 parks, trails, and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres — was Eric Draper, a tall, soft-spoken Florida native who had lobbied for Audubon’s Florida chapter until his appointment in 2017.

Draper just retired, so we spent some time on the phone recently discussing his four years overseeing some of Florida’s greatest assets, important both to our ecosystems and to our tourism industry.

Draper assured me he didn’t decide to hang up his khaki uniform because of some raging conflict with his bosses at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He just felt it was time, he said.

“I’m 68,” he told me. “I’ve got a couple of years left to take an active role in things, and I missed advocacy.” He said he hopes to spend the next few years helping local governments find financing for projects to fix the state’s water quality woes. (Good luck to him on that.)

Draper said he enjoyed his tenure overseeing the state park system, learning its great challenges (many driven by climate change — more on that in a bit). He also got to see its strengths, including the 1,035 full-time rangers and 500 or so part-timers staffing the parks. All of them deserve to be paid more than they are, he said.

“I hated hearing the expression, ‘They do it for the love of the job,’” he said.

You can’t recruit new rangers based on an expectation they will do the job just because they love it, he said. That’s why he pushed for starting salaries to be raised from $26,000 a year to $27,000, he said, even though it meant overcoming what he called “inertia” in the DEP.

Draper told me he was surprised by how many cultural and historical treasures are in the park system. The oldest parks date only to the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built them as make-work projects during the Depression. But some of the properties they protect are far, far older than that, such as the Mound Key Archaeological State Park and Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park.

Over time, Draper grew to appreciate some of the lesser known state parks, naming Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park as his favorite.

“I had the most amazing experiences at Fakahatchee Strand,” he said, “standing in knee-deep water and seeing all the orchids and the birds “

He was amused by some of the things that happened, too, such as the time when this former coat-and-tie lobbyist took a powerful legislator on a tour of the Homosassa Springs park.

“He kept looking over at me, in my uniform shirt, like he couldn’t get over it,” Draper said, chuckling.

As for Lu’s splatter zone, he said, “we steered clear of that.”

‘Turbulence’ in the park system

Draper, one of five children of an Air Force sergeant, was born at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. He told me he “developed a deep passion for the environment while camping and canoeing around Florida during high school and college.”

He moved to Washington to work with an organization called Clean Water Action. In 1990, he joined the Nature Conservancy, which sent him back to Florida to help pass the Preservation 2000 land-buying initiative.

After a second tour of duty in D.C., this time as a senior vice president for the National Audubon Society, he returned to Florida in 1999 to work for the state Audubon chapter. This time, he stuck around. He became executive director in 2009, a position he held until he was appointed to the $115,000 a year parks director job.

Draper took over at a time when the park system had gone through what airline pilots refer to as “a little turbulence.” That’s the term they use when the passengers have been thrown all over the cabin and are actively tossing their cookies.

The park system had been run previously by Donald Forgione, who became a park ranger in 1983 and worked his way up to director in 2010, the first person ever to do that. Then, in January 2011, Rick Scott became governor and suddenly the park service began being squeezed and manipulated like a fresh pack of Silly Putty.

Legislators who said they were working at Scott’s behest proposed Jack Nicklaus be allowed to build golf courses in five state parks. One newspaper columnist declared this to be “The Worst Idea in the History of the World.” Waves of bipartisan ridicule led them to withdraw the legislation.

Next, Scott’s DEP secretary proposed letting private companies build new campgrounds and run them, starting with allowing recreational vehicles in the most popular park in the system, Honeymoon Island, near Dunedin.

Nearly 1,000 people showed up at a Dunedin public hearing, and I’d estimate 999 of them were opposed to the idea. I don’t mean they merely disliked it. They talked of forming a human chain to keep the R.V.s out of what they regarded as “their” state park.

(Draper agreed with me that this was a sign of how people view their local state park as something precious belonging to the community: “People love them!” he said.” That’s a great thing.”)

Dropping that idea, Scott’s DEP then proposed raising money for buying more park land by declaring some state lands surplus and selling them. Again, local officials objected — many had worked hard to preserve that land. Nine months later, the agency ended the program without having sold a single acre. The two DEP officials in charge both resigned.

Next, Scott’s DEP secretary proposed allowing hunting, cattle grazing, and timber harvesting in some parks to boost their moneymaking potential. The parks were already raking in enough money to pay 85 percent of their expenses, but the DEP boss wanted 100 percent.

One of the many opponents of these proposed changes was Forgione. After six years as parks director, he was abruptly demoted, with no public explanation. The reason, Draper told me, was that he’d dared to buck his bosses. Draper said he would have done the same, despite the consequences.

To replace Forgione, Scott’s DEP tapped a controversial Public Service Commission member named Lisa Edgar. She held the post just long enough for her name to be painted on the office door, then resigned and was charged with DUI and hit-and-run.

The position remained vacant for nine months, adding to the turmoil. Then, in a surprise move, the inexperienced Draper got the nod.

In his years at Audubon, Draper had made his share of enemies, usually because of his willingness to cut deals to achieve his organization’s goals. Environmental activists usually divide into two groups: the Die-Hards, who refuse to bend or back down, and Deal-Cutters like Draper.

I wondered at the time if the Scott administration picked Draper primarily because one of the Die-Hards had labeled him “the worst environmentalist in Florida.” But he told me, “I was recruited for my environmental credentials, not in spite of them.”

After he and I talked, I rooted around for critics of Draper’s leadership at the Florida Park Service. Mostly I got shrugs. Some of his former enemies had forgotten that’s where he’d gone.

The worst criticism I turned up was someone who accused him of being “a placeholder” that Scott’s people brought in to settle things down. Draper was downright offended when I told him about the placeholder comment, to the point that he sent me copies of his five-year plans.

“It is ironic, since most people thought I pushed too hard,” he told me. “When I became state parks director there was no plan, and the only direction from above was to refocus on the FPS mission.”

Stick ’em in the splatter zone!

It’s hard to argue with his results.

In 1999, 2005, and 2013, Florida’s state parks won the gold medal — the top prize — from the National Parks and Recreation Association. In 2019, Draper’s second year in charge, Florida’s parks won their fourth gold medal — the only park system in the nation with that many wins.

“I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Eric Draper,” said Tammy Gustafson, president of the Florida State Parks Foundation, which raises money to support the parks.

As for Draper’s former employer, last month Audubon Florida gave him its 2021 Teddy Roosevelt Award “for a career of leadership on behalf of Florida’s environment.”

For his part, Draper feels he spent too much time “responding to the urgent rather than focusing on the important.” The former includes figuring out how to fix a roof or obtain more vehicles as opposed to coming up with a broad strategy for dealing with climate change, leaving those decisions to each park.

Climate change is “a huge issue” for Florida’s parks, he said. For instance, Tomoka State Park in Ormond Beach is one of the coastal parks where rising seas are rapidly eroding public property. Honeymoon Island is another.

As climate change warms the world’s oceans, the hotter water makes hurricanes stronger. One example: Hurricane Michael, which in 2018 wreaked havoc at a variety of Panhandle parks, even inland ones such as Torreya State Park and Florida Caverns State Park.

Draper acknowledged that the changing climate heightens the risk to the parks of severe drought and rampaging wildfires, too.

Yet, so far, Gov. Ron DeSantis and our Legislature are inclined to do nothing about the causes of climate change. They’d rather spend millions of tax dollars on structures to adapt to it — at least until the water goes even higher. They don’t want to indulge in what DeSantis referred to as “left-wing stuff” that would lessen our reliance on fossil fuels in transportation and building.

As 2022 dawns, put this on your Florida bucket list: Go see our coastal parks before they’re washed away, then badger your legislators and other elected representatives to change their ways. They need to get busy saving our publicly owned beaches, forests, and preserves by cutting our state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

I am in favor of doing anything that will focus their attention on this issue. That includes luring them into Lu the Hippo’s splatter zone and not letting them leave until they say, “Yes.” Sometimes, to get things done, you have to speak a language politicians understand.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.