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Thousands Sign Petition Against Profiting From Paynes Prairie

Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Alachua County, Florida.
Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Alachua County, Florida.

Over 12,400 people have signed a petition to protest possible cattle grazing and tree farming in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

The petition, titled “Paynes Prairie in danger,” was written by environmentalist Shirley Lasseter  after Jon Steverson, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, proposed that such uses be allowed to make state parks like Paynes Prairie financially self-sustaining.

 A Gainesville resident of 45 years, Lasseter grew up in Miami but moved to Gainesville for school and never left.

“There’s something about north Florida,” Lasseter said. “It has a wonderful canopy, so many trees, and you’re still only an hour from the beach.”

Lasseter said she started the petition because she couldn’t stand the idea of cattle ranching or growing trees for profit inside the state park.

“There are plenty of other places in the state where those things could be, or where they’re already happening,” she said. “To move those activities to a park where you’ve already got so much public interaction, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Dusty Holley, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association director of field services, said that there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding what happens with the land leased to cattle ranchers by the state.

“At first glance, the idea might sound intrusive,” he said. “I think people are picturing those boardwalks through the wetlands being filled up with cattle, but that’s not the case.”

Cattle owners, he said, are only interested in land that is viable for grazing and raising their livestock. As for the environment, Holley said that cattle actually provide land management for state lands by eating invasive plants and underbrush that, if left unchecked, could potentially cause damaging wildfires.

Lasseter believes that the cattle grazing is part of the problem.

“Unfortunately, the cattle are too good at eating,” she said. “They’ll eat anything, including plants that other animals rely on to survive.”

Holley said the cattle have established themselves as a beneficial part of Florida’s ecosystem for many years.

“There’s been cattle in Florida since 1521, when the first settlers arrived,” he said.

Cattle have been known to graze in the Paynes Prairie area since Seminole times, but were removed from the state park by a vote 47 years ago.

“To Rick Scott and the DEP, it makes sense to bring the cattle back,” Lasseter said. “For them, it’s about money. It doesn’t make sense for those of us who love Florida and nature.”

When asked to comment, Paynes Prairie Park Manager David Jowers declined, stating his department would not allow him to do so.

Lasseter hopes her petition will reach 15,000 signatures. When it does, she plans to present it in Tallahassee.

Jordanne is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be reached at news@wuft.org or 352-392-6397.