Proclaimed by a traveler in 1856 to be “a grand hydrographical feature of North America ranked with Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River,” Silver Springs is the largest artesian spring in the United States. Centrally located in Florida and home to the state’s first major tourist attraction, Silver Springs is a National Natural Landmark and is a premier destination for travelers worldwide.
Silver Springs is also the “Crown Jewel” of the Florida State Park System. Encompassing 4,660 acres, and including the entire Silver River, Ocala’s only state park was purchased to conserve the natural and cultural beauty of the area and to inform and educate the public. Development in the state park is limited to uses that are compatible with the mission and goals outlined by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks.
In 2013 and 2014, when the Silver Springs and Wild Waters attraction was combined with the existing Silver River State Park, state officials hosted a series of advisory team meetings to identify specific uses that would or would not be compatible with park re-development.
Removal of the dilapidated Wild Waters infrastructure was a priority for the state park. One proposed compatible use was inclusion of a new springs and freshwater science education and research facility. Demolition of Wild Waters provides an ideal space near the park’s entrance for fulfilling this interpretive goal.
Recently, the private, non-profit Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute has been encouraged by the Florida Park Service to develop a proposal to establish the Silver Springs Environmental Institute.
The proposed Silver Springs Environmental Institute would include education and interpretive experiences for all ages. The new institute would house a series of displays describing Florida’s rich springs diversity, including their hydrology, chemistry, biology and cultural resources. The springs institute would also include a research laboratory to support ongoing monitoring of Florida’s artesian springs, and classrooms and boating access for researchers and student interns. The proposed Silver Springs Institute would be designed to augment and enhance the existing Silver River Museum that focuses on elementary school students.
The Silver Springs Environmental Institute would collaborate with educators and researchers from state universities, community colleges, advanced high school programs, state and local agencies, and non-profit scientific organizations. This facility would accommodate visiting students and faculty and provide a new center for scientific excellence in Marion County.
Area businesses, including lodging, food and entertainment, would benefit economically from the increased flow of visitors and professionals attracted by the proposed Silver Springs Environmental Institute.
To facilitate access to the vast network of trails and public lands radiating out from Silver Springs and the Cross-Florida Greenway, this proposed re-development plan would provide space for compatible concessionaires, such as outdoor adventure gear sales and bicycle and kayak sales and rentals. Visitors would have several choices when they enter park property from State 40. They would be able to start their visit with no charge at the aesthetically-designed Silver Springs Environmental Institute to get an overview, maps, equipment and background on park amenities; enter the head spring attraction area by paying standard admittance fees; or head straight for the canoe/kayak concession to immerse themselves in the Silver/Ocklawaha Blueway.
A key concern of the park advisory committee in 2014 was the documented decline in Silver Springs due to flow reductions and increasing groundwater pollution. The proposed Silver Springs Environmental Institute would have the in-house expertise to champion springs restoration and protection. When interviewed by the Ocala Star Banner in 2013, the former head of the Florida Park Service, Donald Forgione, stated that, “Every one of our state parks is special. But Silver Springs is going to be the most unique and special among them.” He added, “It’s not going to be a terrific park if it isn’t terrific environmentally.”
The education and research benefits provided by locating the proposed Silver Springs Environmental Institute at Silver Springs State Park would help to ensure the restoration and protection of this world-class natural wonder. The benefits to the residents of Silver Springs, Ocala, Marion County, and to all the people who reside in or visit Florida, will be immense.
— Guy Marwick has devoted much of his life to the acquisition and preservation of the Silver Springs State Park and large contiguous tracts of conservation lands. Marwick founded and formerly directed the Silver River Museum and currently is the executive director of the charitable Felburn Foundation.