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Discussion to open cave diving at Wakulla

By Jennifer Portman
Democrat senior writer

CRAWFORDVILLE —Opinions were sharply divided at a public workshop Thursday night on whether recreational cave diving should be allowed at Wakulla Spring, the centerpiece of Wakulla Springs State Park.

Scientific monitoring equipment and fossils sit on the cave bottom of Wakulla Spring. State officials are considering a request to open the underwater cave to recreational divers. / Special to the Democrat/Woodville Karst Plain Proj

More than 200 people turned out to the Wakulla County Agriculture Extension Arena for the meeting hosted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to get input on a proposal to reverse a 26-year-old policy forbidding public diving in the 300-foot-deep first-magnitude spring.

About 100 people filled out speaker cards and were given about a minute each to make their pitches — both for and against the plan — to officials with DEP’s Division of Parks and Recreation.

Many of those opposed to the idea wore badges and held small signs that read: “No more threats to Wakulla Spring.”

“It may not be a proposal to build a gas station on top of the spring, but recreational diving is no less serious,” said Casey McKinlay, project manager of the Woodville Karst Plain Project, which has a research permit to dive the spring and its vast, more than 30-mile underwater cave system for research purposes. “I believe it needs protection and to be preserved for future generations.”

Retired manager of the park for 16 years, Sandy Cook, implored her former DEP colleagues to stand their ground.

“The Park Service got it right 26 years ago with Wakulla Springs,” Cook said. “Please don’t change it now.”

But those comments and many others warning of dire safety and spring degradation consequences that would result if recreational cave diving were to be allowed were challenged by diving advocates who said the spring would be unharmed and the area would reap great economic benefits.

“Wakulla Spring would become very easily the Mecca for diving,” said Bob Harris, a scuba diving industry lobbyist. “We want it to be managed; we want it to be done carefully.”

The Rev. John Spicer, president of the Wakulla County Diving Club, said the concerns about allowing diving and diver’s access to the spring could be balanced.

“This need not be an either/or — it can be a both/and, a win, win,” Spicer said.

Division of Parks and Recreation officials will provide a summary of the hours of comments and present them to the division director, who will decide if the policy should be changed. If officials decide to add cave diving as an activity at the spring, they will begin the process of amending the park’s management plan, said the division’s Lou Scruggs.

There would be a public workshop on any draft plan, more public input would be sought and an advisory group would be formed to present a plan to the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council for a review and further public comment. The issue eventually could reach the Cabinet for a final decision.

“A decision has not been made at this time. We want to hear what you all want to say,” Scruggs said. “The division intends to make this decision based on what’s best for the park and its resources.”


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