Sun04202014

Last updateFri, 18 Apr 2014 10pm

Headlines:

Local

Iconic Silver Springs to join state park system

W - Silver Springs gate IMG-20130725-00019OCALA – Silver Springs in Ocala will soon be a completely different park.

The State of Florida, which currently leases the land for Silver Springs to a company that manages it as a private park, will take over management Oct. 1 and incorporate it into the state park system.

In order to transition Silver Springs into a typical state park, some of the features will be removed, said Rick Mercer, director of operations for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Activities such as jeep rides and exotic animal displays will be gone, Mercer said, in order to bring Silver Springs more in line with a standard state park.

“The mission of the Florida park system is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources,” said Matt Mitchell, spokesman for the Florida Park Service. The exotic animals and jeep rides “are not really the more passive elements of recreation that we promote,” Mercer said.

The goal is to get people to enjoy the natural Florida, Mitchell and Mercer said. Some activities, such as the glass-bottom boat rides and kayaking, will still be available for an additional fee.

Renovations will transform the look of the park, they said. Exotic plants that have invaded Silver Springs are being removed. These plants have a negative impact on the native flora, while detracting from the natural look of the park, Mitchell said. “This allows the propagation and spread of natural plant communities that should be there,” Mercer said. Many of the exotic plants are dead and decaying.

The infrastructure will be renovated to conform to the way other state parks look, including paint jobs with more muted tones that blend in better with the natural scenery. Visitors will be able to see the real Florida, Mercer and Mitchell said, with the park better representing the local area.

“The park over time will become more native in its appearance,” Mercer said.

The glass-bottom boats will be stripped apart and rebuilt. Engineering projects to improve drainage systems and water quality will be undertaken.

With the state running the park, Mercer and Mitchell said there would be a bigger focus on conservation and protecting the water quality of Silver Springs.

“A private entity has to make money,” Mercer said, “but the environment is the bottom line to us.”

“I firmly believe that in five years, you’ll see a significant increase to the environmental conditions in the park,” he added.

As a state park, it will cost $5 per person or $8 per vehicle with up to eight people to enter the park. Hours will be from 8 a.m. to sunset, every day of the year. Silver Springs will be combined with Silver State Park to form one entity.

Volunteers and concessioners will play a major role in running Silver Springs, Mitchell said. Canoeing, kayaking and some event planning will be outsourced to third parties.

Residents in the Ocala area have given overwhelmingly positive feedback over the changes, Mercer said.

“I think the local residents are going to be extremely pleased,” he said. Even with some attractions, such as the glass-bottom boats remaining, the main feature for the visitors will be the natural scenery.

“First and foremost, they are going to enjoy the beauty of natural Florida,” Mercer said.

#     #     #

Email cmckinney@

alachuatoday.com