Kayak outfitters forced to stop Blue Spring tours: ‘I’m watching my livelihood disappear’

Blue Spring State Park has long been a tourist hotspot, as visitors come from near and far to swim in the azure waters or see manatees, sometimes on kayak tours.

But local outfitters say the state suspended tourism operations starting Aug. 1, handing out warnings to some paddle tour groups amid sudden enforcement of Florida’s administrative code, which governs the Department of Protection. environment and state parks.

“It was a surprise, I think, for everyone. I was not contacted by anyone beforehand,” said Astrid Jackson, owner of Venture Outdoors. “I learned from other providers that they had received warnings.”

The problem revolves around French Landing, which is located on the St. Johns River at the end of unpaved West French Avenue past the gated entrance to Blue Spring State Park. Volusia County sold the boat launch and surrounding land to the state in 1979 with a deed stipulating that the site should remain open 24 hours a day at no cost to users – unless the DEP n ‘makes improvements, including paving the road and adding a wharf, changes the state take into account.

Until recently, the ramp was unmarked and could easily be overlooked by unsuspecting park visitors. Now, a sign posted on the road welcomes passers-by to French Landing and states that “park rules in 62D-2 FAC are enforced”.

A new sign near the water at French Landing states that “Guest Services Inc. is the only authorized kayak vendor for Blue Spring State Park. Other vendors operating in the park violate rule 62D-2.014. This part of the code specifies that companies other than the official national park concessionaire must receive a permit to conduct tours and rentals.

Greg Pflug, owner of Adventures in Florida, has been taking guests to French Landing for nearly three decades and said the news shocked him.

“I haven’t had a job since 1995. In one day, we lost a third of our income. Two people have lost their jobs,” he said. “I watch my livelihood disappear.”

Jackson previously worked for Pflug before starting his own company and buying a house near the state park, hedging his bets on visits to Blue Spring. Now she’s being forced to pivot and tour elsewhere.

“I couldn’t reach customer service. I spoke to Dustin Allen, the park superintendent… He told me that [Guest Services] isn’t really interested in outsourcing,” she said. “I haven’t really had a lot of time to prepare. As a small business owner, it’s really hard to manage.

Jackson had at least half a dozen providers affected by this change, although there could be more. Kayaking Florida, owned and operated by Greg Braswell, is among local entrepreneurs feeling the pain.

“It’s just not fair to say who can come in and who can’t access our natural resources, especially when you have a company taking the lead,” Braswell said. “I love my state parks, it’s just a shame they do that.”

Florida DEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta said the terms of the initial agreement included the condition that French Avenue and the French Avenue boat ramp remain open to the public 24 hours a day, free of charge. for users.

“To be clear, this does not apply to unauthorized concession operations,” she said in an emailed statement. “Visitors wishing to rent recreational equipment are encouraged to visit the park’s official concessionaire, Blue Spring State Park Adventures.”

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These amenities are operated by Guest Services, Inc., which took over the park’s concessions in 2020, offering nature river cruises, off-road segway tours, kayak tours, and rentals. Kuchta said outside tour operators were given the French Landing boot due to concerns from citizens and park visitors, such as “barriers to public access.”

“Recent new signage and enforcement action at French Landing has been spurred in part by an increase in comments … about the direct and indirect effects of unauthorized businesses operating in the area,” she said. “For example, a kayak rental business operating in French Landing may require a disproportionate amount of space or create a large increase in traffic that would make it difficult for individuals or families to access the boat launch.”

Independent tour operators worry about their livelihoods and their staff, but also about a poor customer experience when they have only one choice for kayak tours in Blue Spring.

“We have these big companies that are just going to be a general experience, rather than a very personal experience with what we as outfitters, we locals, can do,” said Jackson, who is a certified kayak instructor and a wilderness first responder. “For me, the relationship with people and the environment is important. I don’t want to encroach on any of that or the manatees.

Following the enforcement of the rules in Blue Spring, Jackson and other outfitters meet to discuss their options in the fight for their access to this Florida waterway. In the meantime, Pflug is also worried that visitors won’t have access to experienced local guides because his company has been kicked out of the park.

“Our economy in Florida is based on customer experience. People don’t want to stand in line for a bad experience,” Pflug said. “Now people who come here don’t get 30 years of experience in a guide talking about manatees they know by name.”

Find me @PConnPie on Twitter and instagram or send me an email: pconnolly@orlandosentinel.com. For more fun things, follow @fun.things.orlando on instagram, Facebook and Twitter.


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