Every state disagreement over issue priority, policy direction, and funding level has been compounded greatly by the monumental uncertainties of coronavirus. Months of restrictions on institutions, businesses, and workers have punched a gigantic hole in the state budget, reported as upwards of $3 billion for the just completed fiscal year. Advocates who for years have been busily promoting funding restorations and expansions and program additions now have to worry about protecting existing services from decimation.
The search for the new normal does not negate the necessity of repairing long-running deficiencies in state programs and services. For advocates, what looked like the Appalachians in terms of the hill to climb may now resemble the Himalayas.
With so many activities, attractions, and entertainments constrained for who knows how long, outdoor opportunities not subject to large crowds will be increasingly enticing.
One of the few places that Pennsylvanians have enjoyed mostly without restriction is the trail system that crisscrosses our commonwealth. That ought to increase support for the goal of DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn to have an accessible trail within fifteen miles of every resident. The recreational and health benefits of that would be exceptional. Of course, apart from complicating details such as right-of-way acquisition, there is that nagging concern of who is willing to pay for establishing and maintaining such a network.
Which brings us to an even larger concern: What is the future for Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks, commonly referenced as our crown jewels? During budget hearings earlier this year, one state legislator pronounced them gems. Well-protected natural areas are highly desirable and valued. Told this, most people would assume these heirlooms are well-funded. Ah, the shortcomings of logical deduction applied to state budgeting. Why does state government persist in funding our gems as if they were cheap costume jewelry?
Going back to the last recession, more decisionmakers believe that tightening up state finances will yield better spending decisions and performance. That parallels what they hear constantly from taxpayers. But how is that working for state parks? What part of a mounting backlog of maintenance and improvement projects reflects better management? How is doing less with less working out for the dual goals of preservation and public enjoyment?
The rusted rather than rustic status quo surely contradicts the views and wishes of a study that involved the input of thousands of residents. This insightful look into the future reaffirmed state parks are a tremendous asset, popular with residents and tourists. Even if we raise an eyebrow over speculated multiplier numbers, the collective economic impact of state parks is substantial.
More people going to state parks means public enjoyment and appreciation are ascending. It also means that inadequate infrastructure is more overtaxed. A lot of people feel a deep commitment toward preserving and protecting these natural and recreational assets. Yet, not only has funding failed to keep pace with the expanding responsibilities of a larger system, but the staff complement has been curtailed.
In the $35 billion megastore where folks shop for state funding, powerful competing interests argue the needs of people take priority over scenery, trees, rocks, streams, flowers, and wildlife. Granted, there are intrepid groups of outdoors enthusiasts who press for state park improvements. But broad recognition of the plight is hard to come by. Pointing out problems is not any indictment of administrators and personnel. They are too few with too little support trying to tackle too large a responsibility.
Compounding problems of neglect and underfunding is severe and destructive weather ravaging communities in every corner of the commonwealth. The damage has not bypassed state parks. Mother Nature indiscriminately devastates some of her finest works. Time takes its toll, as dams creating the lakes at the heart of state parks eventually need repaired, or if too far gone, replaced.
Now, state parks are just one class of infrastructure suffering a critical lack of funding. Everything from roads and bridges to water and sewer is experiencing a serious backlog of projects and significant deficiencies in funding. Whether wrapping them together in a comprehensive infrastructure package is help or hindrance remains to be determined. One thing can be said for certain. To the extent that activities within individual parks are restricted or closed off, people are not going to recapture the experiences lost.
The gap grows between the services and resources we want and what we are willing to pay to sustain and maintain them. So what about frequently suggested alternatives? Fees are seen as unfair and redundant. Parks are a state responsibility, so why are our taxes not providing for them, residents ask? Experience in other states shows fee revenue being used to replace state contributions, rather than augmenting as intended.
Creative financing proposals, such as commercializing select parks, have been kicking around for decades. This always raises objections about unfair competition from private enterprises outside the parks. Plus, there is no guarantee that such enterprises are sure-fire successes. News stories point out that the inn at Bald Eagle State Park does not pay for itself. As if taxpayers needed a fresh example that government projections are something short of infallible.
The real difficulty is that the various schemes to raise money – charging fees, luring tourists with amenities, insisting the parks turn into moneymakers, deferring basic upkeep – all these things violate the principles and spirit behind the creation and expansion of state parks.
While the state sport of kicking bureaucrats is practiced with intensity by both political teams, this is not the result of indifference or incompetence. The state parks have been rated too low for too long when budget priorities are established.
Our conservation roots reach deep. Gifford Pinchot saw to forest restoration and pulled the farmers from the mud. Maurice Goddard served as environmental secretary for a succession of administrations. His goal of having a park within twenty-five of every resident has been well met.
When travel commentators list the best park in each state, Ricketts Glen typically draws the award here. This place is so spectacular it was originally intended to be a national park, but when the feds faltered the state stepped in. In places such as Caledonia State Park, there is a wonderful intersection of nature and history, by way of a political giant named Thaddeus Stevens. In others, the names of incredible individuals have been honored, Frances Slocum and her astonishing frontier story for instance.
In terms of opportunity, no one seems to be suggesting that we have topped out at 121 state parks. One answer to the attendance surge would be more parks. But unless relief on the funding end comes through, that notion is utterly implausible. On the score of accountability, how effective are state advertising dollars when the destinations prove something less than top shelf?
A state budget is a statement of our collective priorities. What sort of statement do we make about the legacy and future of Penn’s Woods when we habitually nickel and dime our state parks? State parks are an essential entry on the environmental side of the ledger, balancing out some of the impacts of pro-development policies driving our economy and job picture.
We put a lot of money, some generated by dedicated taxes, toward the preservation of farmland. So why not do the same for state parks, which offer environmental, economic, recreational, and psychic value? A legacy only holds true value when its condition does not deteriorate between generational pass downs.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.