An open letter to our elected commissioners, senators, representatives, and governor:
You're getting this letter because you have the power to seal the fate of Camp Helen State Park, and I have a care as to how it is sustained. Plans in the new Unit Management Plan are potentially detrimental to the natural resources of the park and Lake Powell, a coastal dune lake. Concessions (food and rentals), development on the north side of Hwy.98 and stabilized trails are potential actions in the plan.
Yes, these sound inviting, but to what end?
This is a very small park with a variety of unique coastal, upland and wetland natural communities ranging from coastal dune to mesic flatwoods, salt marsh to maritime hammock, rare sand pine scrub to depression marsh. The disruption of these habitats would change the landscape dramatically by bringing in opportunistic invasive plants and displacing the wildlife we all hope to see.
Two endangered species of shorebirds nest at Phillips Inlet — snowy plovers and least terns. Among the state parks in our area, Camp Helen has the highest fledge rate for snowy plovers. These birds lay eggs directly on the sand. Threats to the nesting shorebirds include predators such as raptors that would perch on new beach boardwalk hand rails to hunt close to the ground and raccoons and coyotes, which would come to feed on leftover food trash thrown into the dunes.
I admit, I am partial to these birds. Once a month, I, alongside many other dedicated volunteers, conduct a bird species survey at the park. We record each bird by species. We document many “banded” plovers and chicks and we have added several new species to the park's official bird list.
Furthermore, proposed development of group camping cabins on the north side would highly alter and usurp the old growth pine habitat and congest the view with structures.
Worth mentioning, the proposed camping area is separated from the main park area by a four lane divided highway on a dangerous curve just west of the Philips Inlet Bridge. There is a path under the bridge, yet no way to limit campers from attempting highway crossings. Guests will inevitably wander to the beach at night, with their flashlights, into the bird sanctuary and into turtle nesting areas.
Several archaeological and cultural sites also occur on the property. The Camp Helen Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. This slice of “Old Florida” should remain intact for the generations to enjoy. The park's collections, artifacts, specimens, etc., are housed in a temporary building along with park offices and restrooms. The Unit Management Plan includes a proposal for a new Visitor's Center, which will permanently address these needs. This is one aspect of the “plan” that is not contested and the public would like to see fulfilled.
In contrast, the idea of food concessions is problematic on many levels — trash, attraction of predators and potential to create nuisance animals, food safety and even the “smell.” These were all concerns gleaned from public input.
Also opposed is the construction of a boat dock to accommodate private boats, tour boats and water taxis. Accommodating private interests and an increase of commercial type watercraft compounded with the addition of new users expected due to a development boom occurring around Lake Powell will also impact water quality.
Camp Helen is a 180-acre, day-use park with 1,700 feet of beachfront. There are many area parks that offer more amenities, but these are larger with existing infrastructure and facilities. St. Andrews State Park /1,260 acres, Topsail State Park/1,643 acres and Grayton Beach State Park/2,000 acres. These parks have 1.5 to 3.2 miles of beachfront. Each park has its attractions, some endemic and some man-made. However, every park does not have to offer everything to everyone!
Your big money maker, also in Bay County, is just down the road. St. Andrews State Park is the top revenue producing park in Florida.
Camp Helen State Park offers unspoiled beauty, wildlife havens and a spot for solitude. Camp Helen sits on the shoreline of Lake Powell, a designated Outstanding Florida Waterway and largest of the rare coastal dune lakes in this hemisphere. I personally believe the aim of making money will backfire on this irreplaceable one-of-a-kind natural resource. Let's not look back 10 years from now and ask “Why did we do this?”
These proposals have really stirred folks up around here. And we are all counting on you to join us with the foresight to make decisions that perpetuate our local history, culture, flora and fauna. By doing this, you will affirm protection of a Florida treasure.
Emily Ellis lives in Inlet Beach. She is a painter, photographer, naturalist, music lover and prose attempter. Each year, she and her husband spend their anniversary exploring a different Florida State Park.