By David A. Atkinson
A recent survey commissioned by the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation found that two-thirds of the 701 respondents favor placing greater priority on funding state parks and forests. With more attention being given to protecting natural areas and more focus placed on the benefits of healthy recreation and leisure, this is no surprise. Stories about the maintenance and renovation backlog for the 121 state parks and the 2.2 million acres of state forest have appeared frequently since the onset of the pandemic. If there is any mystery in these findings, it would be wondering what the dissenting one-third has in mind.
In such surveys, the consensus usually falls off when the question is asked about how to pay for taking action on that expressed priority. In this case, there is a pot of money available, through the American Rescue Plan. The problem is that every other spending interest is eyeing up those funds. And the advocates of lower spending and smaller state government are looking to squirrel those funds away.
A few weeks ago, DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn was a featured guest on SmartTalk, a flagship program on WITF radio. A veteran of state government service, she gets high marks for her advocacy and stewardship of a department that is not large in complement but is outsized in its impact on our natural heritage and resources. She is no stereotypical bureaucrat sitting in a dark bunker. She is out and about touting and enjoying Pennsylvania’s abundant attractions.
The story she tells goes beyond documented statistics into the consideration of value-added. During the pandemic, attendance at state parks was quite healthy, as Pennsylvanians realized they could find an easily accessible outlet for safely curing bad bouts of cabin fever. There is a wide range of activities for recreating and exercising in line with one’s interests and capabilities.
That is a big plus, but there is more. Not only is the collected acreage safe from development. The parks encompass incredible natural wonders, including diverse and sometimes rare land, air, and aquatic species. And in the current debate over what steps can and should be taken to mitigate unfavorable changes in climate, the 121 state parks are counted as prime assets on that accounting sheet of value. Then there are the economic spin-off benefits. Local businesses built around winter and summer sports, from skiing to kayaking, are growing because of rising public participation.
Listening to this, a question comes to mind. While we have achieved the goal set by Maurice Goddard decades ago of having a state park within twenty-five miles of every Pennsylvanian, does that mean mission accomplished? Has every desirable or at-risk parcel been locked up? Has the acquisition office been shuttered? Of course not. Especially when there are still counties without a state park within their borders.
According to the state website, park and wildlife areas account for 6.7% of the state’s land area. That certainly does not seem an excessive amount. This only ranks Pennsylvania 19th among the 50 states. Nowhere near a league-leading amount. Nor an undue economic inhibitor.
As is always the case, a chief reason behind the reluctance to expand is the lagging maintenance of existing parks. The backlog is not entirely a matter of policymaker indifference. Severe weather events over the past decade have taken a serious toll at state parks. The pressure following natural disasters is to fix communities first, which is costly and time consuming. Wilderness areas that involve discretionary activities tend to register low on the work list, in the minds of many.
These factors have not discouraged other entities similarly revenue-pressed. By way of contrast, the state Game Commission just released an annual report showing their domain expanded by slightly over 1900 acres, through a combination of 18 land purchases and donations. This reflects that there is crucial property to be protected. The time to do it is based on availability, rather than the agency budget situation.
Look at a parallel situation with farmland preservation. Obviously, development pressure on land is not relenting. Prime land lost is generally neither recoverable nor replaceable. The same is true of protecting forests, wetlands, wildlife refuges, scenic vistas, and bucolic spots.
Turns out there are opportunities for adding to the roster of state parks. The department recently did a feasibility study on a property in Wyoming County that has drawn official and community interest. Wyoming is one of a handful of counties on the goose egg list for state parks. The study seems thorough enough. There is, however, local disappointment with the conclusion. Reasons given for rejecting state park status are three: the existing protection of the property, the available recreation opportunities in the area, and the cost of installing the infrastructure. These could be legitimate reservations. Or they could reflexive excuses for not expanding. Or perhaps a mix of each.
It is hard to believe Penn’s Woods lacks the will and resources to expand the state park system. We are not up against it in terms of revenues, not when there is discussion of business tax cuts. Taxpayers want to see tangible results when state government is spending extra money. Preservation of land for public use is a lasting asset on the ledger.
We were shown the health and recreational benefits during the pandemic. Those are not about to diminish. And the feds are about to come down harder because our Commonwealth is falling short on the targets agreed to for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. State parks are admittedly a small part of the equation for dealing with climate concerns, but we really cannot afford to forgo any positive contribution.
Secretary Dunn can advocate and recommend to the greatest extent of her power, but the ultimate decision is not hers. Governor Tom Wolf has proved no friend to rural Pennsylvania. If he is truly interested in a legacy beyond being veto-happy, pumping meaningful investment into state park restoration and expansion would be a good place to exert himself. Do that which is within your power to accomplish. Conservation, preservation, and protection can use a better friend in Pennsylvania.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center. He served 35 years on the Pennsylvania Senate Staff.
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 for Public Policy.