Kayak outfitters forced to stop tours in Blue Spring

 

Blue Spring State Park has long been a draw for tourism, as visitors have traveled from far and wide to swim in the azure waters or see manatees, sometimes on kayak trips.

But local suppliers say the state halted their tour operations on Aug. 1 and issued warnings to some paddle tour groups amid sudden enforcement of the Florida Administrative Code, which regulates the Department of Environmental Protection and state parks.

“It came as a surprise, I think, to everyone. I was not contacted by anyone in advance,” said Astrid Jackson, owner of Venture Outdoors. “I heard from other outfitters that they had received warnings.”

The issue revolves around French Landing, 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 ramp and surrounding land to the state in 1979 with a deed stating that the site must remain open to users 24 hours a day at no charge — unless DEP makes improvements such as paving the road and adding a boat dock, change the state is considering.

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

A new sign by the water at French Landing indicates that “Guest Services Inc. the only authorized kayak vendor is for Blue Spring State Park. Other vendors operating in the park are violating rule 62D-2014.” This part of the code states that companies other than the official state park concessionaire must be licensed to operate tours and rentals.

Florida-based Adventures owner Greg Pflug has been taking French Landing tour guests for nearly three decades and said the news came as a shock to him.

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“I don’t have a job that I’ve had since 1995. One day we lost a third of our income. Two people have lost their jobs,” he said. “I see my livelihood disappearing.”

Jackson previously worked for Pflug before starting her own business and buying a home near the state park, placing her bets on tours of Blue Spring. Now she is forced to turn and take tours elsewhere.

‘I couldn’t reach guest service. I spoke to Dustin Allen, the park manager… He told me that [Guest Services] is not really interested in subcontracting,” she said. “I didn’t really have much time to prepare for this. As a small business owner, this is really hard to deal with.”

Jackson counted at least half a dozen outfitters affected by this change, though there could be more. Kayaking in Florida, owned and operated by Greg Braswell, is one of the local entrepreneurs feeling the grief.

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“It’s just not right to say who can come in and who can’t in terms of access to our natural resources, especially if you have a business that is in charge,” Braswell said. “I love my state parks, it’s just a shame they do this.”

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

“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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Those amenities are operated by Guest Services, Inc., which acquired park concessions in 2020 and offers river cruises, off-road segway excursions, kayak tours, and rentals. Kuchta said outside tour companies got the boot from French Landing because of concerns from citizens and park visitors, such as “public access barriers.”

“The recent new signage and enforcement actions at French Landing have been spurred in part by an increase in feedback…about the direct and indirect effects of unauthorized companies operating in the area,” she said. “For example, a kayak rental business operating on French Landing could require a disproportionate amount of space or cause a sharp increase in traffic that would make it difficult for individuals or families to access the boat launch.”

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Independent tour operators worry about their livelihoods and their staff, as well as a poor guest experience when they have only one choice for kayaking tours in Blue Spring.

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

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In the wake of regulatory enforcement in Blue Spring, Jackson and other suppliers are meeting to discuss options in the battle for access to this Florida waterway. Meanwhile, Pflug is also concerned that visitors will not be able to access experienced local guides because his company has been kicked out of the park.

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

Find me @PConnPie on Twitter and Instagram or send me an email: [email protected]. For more fun stuff, follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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