Groups seeking mountain-biking trails and university research facilities within Key Largo's state parks crossed paths and words with ardent park defenders at a Tuesday workshop.
"State parks are not land banks for other state agencies or even private development," Michael Chenowith, president of the Keys chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said at the session hosted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
More than two dozen people spoke at the open meeting to offer suggestions for updating 10-year management plans at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Several residents endorsed a proposal forwarded by the Key Largo Bicycle Association to allow more two-wheeled access deeper into the Dagny Johnson park. An expanded trail system would provide a healthy outdoor experience while letting bicyclists escape the dangers of riding along U.S. 1, they said.
"We want to clean up existing trails.... This is not an extreme sport," said Matthew Thibos, comparing it to paddleboarding or hiking.
"It's a great place to ride bikes instead of down U.S. 1," said bike-shop owner Steve Troeger. "I don't think bicycling on extra trails will make that much impact."
Monroe County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy was among several people who recalled working with the park's namesake to prevent North Key Largo's hardwood hammocks from becoming a sprawl of condominiums.
"Dagny packed a wallop," Murphy said. "Do you think she would put up with a bunch of bikes in there? She'll come back to haunt them.... That's the last place we have of what Key Largo used to look like."
Others stressed a primary goal of the park was to protect 50 species of imperiled plants and animals.
"Developing a mountain-bike trail would reverse those efforts and be an intrusion to this preserve," said Burke Cannon, president of the Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations.
"I'm shocked at the opposition" to the trail, said Jerry Gaddis. "It's so harmless."
Brooke Gaebe of Miami said she wants to preserve "the silence of being with nature and animals" on North Key Largo. "Being in a place where not a lot of people go is something great."
Robert Skinner, president of Miami's Izaak Walton League chapter, said nature parks in Miami-Dade County have been overtaken by recreational pursuits. "It starts out as a cabin or path and it expands," he said. "Put it someplace that's not so sensitive, certainly not in a botanical hammock."
Florida International University Professor James Fourqurean sketched out a plan in which Florida Keys Community College and FIU could work together in a Pennekamp facility to provide needed research and offer educational opportunities. The proposal was hailed by FKCC staff, including Marine Science and Technology Dean Patrick Rice.
Retired Key Largo School Principal Vanessa Strickland liked the prospect of a "seamless transition" for Keys students, moving from high school to FKCC and FIU.
Chenowith, an FIU alumnus, said the university is welcome in Key Largo but should "acquire their own vacant waterfront parcel and leave our parks alone.... I do not want to sacrifice even a small part of Florida's flagship state park to enable it."
Others said FIU needs more than "a concept" and should look at other locations.
DEP Park Planning Manager Sine Murray said comments from residents will be reviewed in the management updates, a process "just now beginning.... We do not yet have a plan."
Florida's park system aims to strike a "balance between preservation of natural resources and providing public access for recreation.... That's something we're always faced with, how the two pieces work together." Additional local workshops will be planned as the process continues, Murray said.