By David Chapinski
Four billion dollars. That is the amount of money that the state of New Jersey has calculated its state parks and activities related to their use bring into the state’s economy.[i] The push and pull over state parks however, has only just begun.
parks are the state’s soft spot for support. But proposed changes to park regulations by the Department of Environmental Protection could restrict public access by increasing more than 30 fees and adding close to a dozen new ones.
For many residents, the use of funding is not really all that clear. Many public organizations believe the funds will not go to our parks, but to the state to balance its budget and to privatize concessioners. Why? Because the regulations do not require that newly generated monies be used for operations, maintenance and capital improvements in the parks where the funds are generated. Raising the fees may be part of Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to privatize our parks and shut out the public. Moreover, raising park fees across the board becomes a hidden tax on the people of New Jersey. At a time when parks and forestry staffing is the lowest in more than 40 years and the need for more facilities and maintenance is increasing, raising fees is wrong.
The need for sustainability in keeping prices from rising too high is obvious. But the question remains, can we all understand the needs of the state causing a spike as people enjoy the water, the activities, and the demanding to-do lists just as they’ve done before for years? The teams of supervisors and staff working these parks have not increased which leads one to believe that the problem can only right itself if the restricting of the State Park System to reallocate resources to adjust for budget reductions and significant staff attrition occurs.
Since 2000, acreage, structure and attendance have risen, while staffing has fallen dramatically.
When Governor Chris Christie came out with his parks privatization plan, he promised NJ residents that it would not result in increased entrance fees. Now the DEP is adding new fees and raising existing ones. For example, the DEP has raised the fees in Liberty Park for renting rooms at the Jersey Central Terminal. The DEP has taken public money that should be used for parks improvement and built picnic areas that users must rent. Parks have been the one thing that government does right and that people have enjoyed for years as being above politics and commercialization.
The DEP proposal is able, willing and ready to charge visitors new fees at parks such as the Delaware and Raritan Canal and Parvin State Park and an entrance fee at Washington Crossing State Park. Entrance fees for some of our most popular sites would be increased. Barnegat Lighthouse would charge more even though it has been privatized.
These increases are likely to affect our quality of life, as people who cannot afford the increases would not be able to visit our parks. Visitors from other states would have to pay twice as much, potentially driving people to other states,’ hurting NJ tourism.
When will we realize that parks are democratic by design and a place for people no matter what their background or economic condition? By adding all these fees, we are moving away from the concept of public parks to publicly financed country clubs to be used by those who can pay.
The changes to park regulations do not address continuing problems. Park staffing continues to drop, from 850 employees in the 1990s to about 400 now. Park maintenance and management are deteriorating, with proposals to clear-cut large sections of Bulls Island State Park and proposed legislation to allow logging in our parks. We should be concerned that fee increases and staffing issues are being used as an excuse to privatize more facilities within our parks.