Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ending the Florida State Park Passport Stamp Program is Not a Wise Move

The Florida State Park Service's Passport to State Parks Book

The National Park Service began a program called “Passport to Your National Parks” in 1988.  In the program each of the units of the National Park Service system (there are now 401 separate units) maintains a stamp (or stamps – depending on how large the unit is) that resembles a stamp that travelers get in the real passports when they travel to a foreign country.  The purpose of the passport stamp program is to encourage the public to get out and enjoy national parks – and if they are lucky to learn something about the nation in which they live.   Currently I have visited 393 of the 401 units of the National Park Service system and have obtained a little over 1,000 individual stamps from all of the parks, monuments, national historic sites, national seashores and other parts of the system that are maintained by the agency.

The Florida Park Service, an agency of state government that has twice received an award for being the best state park system in the nation, initiated a passport stamp program similar to the National Park Service.  I discovered this program in April 2008 not long after I moved to Florida.  Given the intense interest that the passport stamp program created in me for the National Parks, I purchased my first state passport book at Collier-Seminole State Park near Naples, and started traveling around Florida attempting to visit all of the parks.  And I have – six times.

An example of a Florida Park Service passport stamp for one of its units

Florida State Parks extend from Perdido Key on the Alabama border near Pensacola, east to Little Talbot Island on the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville.  From there they extend down both coasts to Fort Zachary Taylor at the end of the road in Key West.  State lands include vast expanses of what once was at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in Okeechobee County (my all-time most favorite state park) to tiny areas surrounding natural springs like Troy Springs in the Panhandle.  State Parks are as diverse as the state itself with historical state parks like Ybor City Museum State Park in Tampa where you can learn about the early Cuban cigar makers on Florida’s west coast to Olustee Battlefield State Park in Baker County where once again the Union forces were defeated by the Confederates (but….remember Richmond and Petersburg and …oh right…who signed what at Appomattox!) to beautiful botanical gardens like Eden Gardens in Walton County near Santa Rosa Beach.  Florida State Parks are in many cases the best of what is left.

When I began seeking out state parks I did so with three objectives in mind.  The first objective was to visit every park; second to learn about the history and geography (flat!) of my adoptive state; and third to work on finding as many species of birds possible in each of Florida’s 67 counties. In many places (around Ratworld or in Miami for instance) state parks are the only places where you can get out and walk in a forest and not be trespassing on private land.  I finished my first circuit of state parks, obtaining a passport stamp for each, at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West. There I purchased a second passport book and worked my way back up the Keys and across the state to Perdido Key at Pensacola.  When I completed the first circuit and turned in the certification form, the Florida Park Service gave me a front license plate as an award.  They gave me a second front license plate after the second complete circuit of all state parks.

The next thing west from Perdido Key State Park is the Flora-bama Bar on the Alabama/Florida state line made famous in a Jimmy Buffett song

For the third adventure across the state I added to the effort a desire to take a picture of the entrance sign of every park in the system.  Now if anyone questioned me or doubted my effort I had a picture of every park entrance to prove I had been there.  As of today the only park entrance sign I am missing is Anclote Key offshore from Tarpon Springs. The original sign was blown over in a hurricane and has not been replaced.

If you don't have a boat or a kayak, your only option for visiting Mound Key in Estero Bay near Fort Myers is to swim

At the conclusion of my third circuit of the system I received a letter from the Director of the Florida Park Service and with it was a free annual pass to all of the state parks.  I received another annual pass after my fourth circuit and yet another after the fifth time I had visited all of the state parks.

Some spectacular botanical resources are protected in Lignumvitate Key Botanical State Park in the Florida Keys. Watch for sand sharks under your kayak as you paddle to the park

My sixth and most recent successful circuit of all the state parks ended on Friday January 17, 2014, when the helpful people at the front desk of Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area near Flagler Beach stamped my passport book.  As this was happening I learned from the park manager that the Florida Park Service was going to discontinue the passport stamp program.  The park manager didn’t know the reason(s) why but hearing the news was really depressing.  It is such a simple, almost cost-free incentive for Florida residents and visitors to explore every nook and cranny of this state I can’t believe that people would want to end it.

The form certifying my sixth successful circuit of the Florida State Park system.  It was filled out by helpful staff at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area near Flagler Beach.  My address is blocked off from the bottom of the form below my name

I wrote a letter to the Florida Park Service transmitting the certification of having visited each state park again.  Included in the letter (copied to the very helpful director of the park system) are my reasons for why, as the old idiom goes, eliminating the passport stamp program would be “a penny short and pound foolish.”  That letter is included with this blog post.

If you have had a similar positive experience with the Florida Park Service and all of its 140 or so units, please contact the agency and your local representative in the state legislature.  Encourage both to not make the huge mistake of ending a program that drips with good and about which I cannot find a single thing that is not positive.

January 19 2014

Passport Stamp Program
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
4156 South Suncoast Boulevard
Homosassa Springs, Florida 34446

Dear Florida Park Service

Attached is my certification of having completed another circuit of the Florida State Park system.  Your records should show that this is my 6th complete circuit of your system and the 6th passport stamp book that I have filled.  The final park visited on this circuit was Gamble Rogers near Flagler Beach.

While at Gamble Rogers I heard the disturbing news that consideration is being given to suspending or eliminating the passport stamp program and I hope this is only a discussion item and no decision has been made.  I have lived in Florida for six years and in that time I have tried to find as many species of birds as possible in each of Florida’s 67 counties.   In many places about the only public land available where you can get out and walk in wild habitat is in state parks (think Oleta River, Honeymoon Island, Wekiwa Springs for example).  Seeking out public lands for bird watching and then adding to it the challenge of filling in the passport books has been one of the most enjoyable parts of living in Florida for me.   In the process I have learned an incredible amount about the history of my adoptive state, its geography, and some of the colorful characters that make up its population.  Credit for that lies largely with the passport stamp program.  I started chasing after National Park Service passport stamps in 1995 and it is because of them that I have now visited 393 of the 401 units of the National Park Service system.  The same passion has overtaken me in Florida.  The program for National Park Service sites has grown so popular that an organization, The National Park Travelers Club, has been formed.  It includes thousands of dedicated passport fans and more importantly thousands of National Park Service fans.

Thinking about it since hearing this news on Friday I cannot come up with a single reason to eliminate the program.  The books cost the state nothing because participants buy the passport books.  Local economies are bolstered by the money brought to them by people visiting the State Parks to obtain passport stamps and the message of your agency is enhanced by knowledgeable people seeking out passport stamps.  If the issue is the time it takes away from staff to stamp passport books I think the National Park Service program has the answer for you.  All of the National Parks have a Passport Stamp Station set up in their visitor center.  Travelers simply walk in the visitor center, find the station and affix the stamp to their passport book themselves.  The stamps are attached to a table by a chain so they can’t be stolen and the entire process takes a matter of seconds all the while park staff are attending to other visitors and not involved with the process.  Obtaining a Florida stamp is an elaborate affair that takes a couple minutes of staff time because Florida staff believe it is necessary to basically hide the stamps until you ask for one and then they personally affix the stamps for visitors.  Setting up a stamp station in each State park office similar to the ones in the National Parks would eliminate that process and free up more staff time to attend to other issues.  This is a very simple solution.

In my six years residence in Florida as I have traveled from Perdido Key to Little Talbot Island to Fort Zachary Taylor I have met a lot of people who are also seeking out passport stamps.  Every one of them I have met and talked to has raved about the program and how it has been a great incentive for them to get out and explore Florida.  The passport stamp program has done the same for me and in the process I have contributed thousands of dollars to the state’s economy as I have traveled all over it. 

There is an old idiom that talks about decisions being “a penny short and pound foolish” which generally is interpreted to mean that doing something small now will prevent bigger issues later.   I think that idiom can be applied to the passport stamp program.  The Florida State Park system is building a cadre of dedicated individuals who will go to bat for you with legislators and others who might seek to harm the agency, its budget and its programs if you asked us.  Why would people want to end something that produces only positive outcomes for all involved?

 I hope that Florida Park Service doesn’t make a penny short and pound foolish decision to end such a successful and advantageous program.  If there is anything I can do to help change the outcome of what I was told at Gamble Rogers I would gladly help you.

As an aside, I have purchased another passport stamp book and I’m now working on my seventh circuit of your excellent park system.

xc:  Director, Florida Park Service