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Park Cuts: Excuse for Privatization

Date : Wed, 5 May 2010 12:32:24 -0400

Park Cuts: Excuse for Privatization Will We Be Selling or Leasing Our Parks?

For Immediate Release
May 5, 2010 Contact: Jeff Tittel, NJ Sierra Club Director, 609-558-9100

The Sierra Club is deeply concerned with what's happening in our state parks. We see deep budget cuts and a move towards privatization. The Christie Administration's transition team, as well as the red tape and privatization task forces, all have alluded to privatization of parks and forests. We are concerned that these lands that have been purchased by the public for public use will be given away to private vendors and corporations. This in turn will undermine the public trust doctrine and lead to the privatization of our important open spaces.

More than $17 million people visit our parks annually. While the number of visitors to our parks and forests goes up every year, we are seeing massive cuts to the funds that keep those parks open. In 2009 there was $54 million available for the preservation and management of our parks and forests. In 2010 it was $38 million and in next year's budget it will only be $25 million. This is more than a 50% cut to the funds available for parks and forests. We are concerned that these cuts will not only make it difficult to keep parks open but will lead to privatization. Currently $10 million from widening the turnpike and parkway and $3 million from capital repairs is being diverted to parks. So the amount of money actually allocated to parks is at the lowest level in modern history. The governor has committed to keeping parks open, but will there be moneys available to staff and service them?

There is a big difference between allowing vendors to operate concessions at state parks, such as restaurants, bed and breakfasts, or kayak rentals, and leasing the park lands to be managed by companies like Marriott, where they not only will end up managing the lands but determining public access, use and costs. Even now some of our concession leases leave a lot to be desired. Companies are paying less than ten cents on the dollar for use of public lands. This is evident in the recent case of Skylands Manor, where a nationally registered historic place was turned into a hotel and wedding destination. This sweetheart deal limits public access to the monument and pays the state much less than market value, while the 30-year lease locks the property up for decades.

Another concern that we have which was raised by John Galandak of the taskforce, is that of leasing out public lands to private companies for lumber extraction. There is big difference between stewardship and leasing public lands to a company like Weyerhauser. Our state forests have always been managed for their recreational value not for resource extraction. New Jersey forests are not vast forests where lumber can be harvested. They are relatively small in area and see many hikers, birders and mountain bikers, as well as hunters and fisherman. For example, Norvin Greene State Forest receives more than 12,000 recreational visitors each year. Furthermore, these are old oak forests and any logging will destroy them. Logging will remove part of the canopy and deer and other invasive species will prevent regeneration. Most forests were bought to protect the water supply. Opening these up to extractive uses will increase runoff and siltation, negatively impacting the reservoirs that forests were purchased to protect.

There are many hurdles to privatization. Federal law prohibits a government agency from leasing public land for development and issuing land use permits for the development of that land. Parks and other public lands would have to be removed from DEP. In doing this, however, the new agency would be doing the leasing while DEP retained permit authority, allowing for construction of places like the Marriott Washington Crossing Hotel and Convention Center.

In addition, by moving the Division of Natural Resources out of DEP, endangered species and fisheries biologists would no longer be a part of the department. They would no longer be able to comment on pending permits that would impact threatened and endangered species or coldwater fisheries, nor would they be available to work on the data that is necessary to upgrade streams to Category 1 protection or develop rules to protect threatened and endangered species.

If we sell naming rights to our parks we could end up with Jello Cheesequake State Park, Jeep Liberty State Park or Fort Mott's Applesauce State Park. Not only will the rest of the nation have another New Jersey joke, we will also be detracting from the historic significance of parks that are public assets, not corporate assets. But it's not just about corporate sponsorships with funny names. It's about bringing pay to play to our state parks and which companies will get the rights to sponsor, lease, or control our public lands.

If the state is interested in individuals or businesses donating money to help maintain our parks, instead of moving parks out of DEP, it could easily set up a state parks foundation like those that other states and the national park system have. This foundation could then raise money from many different sources to benefit our parks, as well as act as a Parks Advisory Council to help the DEP come up with policy directives to better manage our parks. It could be set up in the New York model, where the ultimate authority rests with the DEP commissioner.

Environmentalists have suggested numerous other funding solutions to the state, including:

* Taxing ATVs and RVs

There are currently at least 100,000 ATVs in the state of New Jersey, with about 10,000 new ones being purchased each year. ATVs cause a tremendous amount of damage on state parks and public lands, but we do not yet have an enforcement mechanism to prevent this. By requiring ATVs to register and putting a $50 surcharge on this registration, the state could generate at least $5 million a year. Enforcement could be paid for by fines on unregistered vehicles. This solution would both address a nuisance that destroys public park land and environmentally sensitive areas, as well as providing monies to maintain our parks.

RV users also frequent our state parks and take up more space, emit more fumes and greenhouse gases, and cause more wear and tear on roads and driveways both inside and outside the parks than other users. A $50 surcharge on RV registration would be another way to fund our parks and put back some of what RV users take from our public spaces.

* Paying to Park on Public Land

Currently state parks charge entrance fees only during the summer season - Memorial Day through Labor Day - although many people visit at other times. Hundreds of people, for example, go to Skylands Botanical Gardens in the spring before the season starts to see the flowers. By putting in electronic parking meter systems at our state parks, state forests, wildlife management areas, and other public spaces and charging visitors $5 for a half day of parking and $10 for a full day, we could generate millions of dollars to keep our parks going, as well as encourage car pooling and mass transit use, which would help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Enforcement could be paid for with funds from parking tickets.

* Getting Our Money's Worth Out of State Land

Currently there are thousands of acres of public land that are being leased to private entities, who use this land for stores, restaurants, lumber yards, farms, electric transmission lines, gas lines, fiber optic cables, and other installations. The state, however, is not getting its fair share from these leases.

Many of the leases of state land go back to the early 1950's and 1960's, when a price of $1 an acre was agreed on. Having never renegotiated the leases, the state is still accepting $1 an acre, which is now 100 to 1,000 times less than market value. Appropriate negotiation and enforcement of leases could generate enough revenue not only to meet the shortfall in parks, but to help fund parks in the future. This land belongs to the people of New Jersey, and they are entitled to get fair value for it.

* Expanding the Use of Park Passes

The state could issue season passes to more parks than it currently offers and add parks to those covered by the current statewide season passes, enticing more people to buy them and raising additional funds.

* Issuing Licenses for Saltwater Fishing

Many states require licenses for saltwater fishing, as well as freshwater fishing. New Jersey could also adopt this policy and raise funds from the license fees to keep the parks, wildlife management areas, and other public spaces where people come to fish open.

The state should not use its budget crisis to manipulate the management of public lands in New Jersey. The Department of Agriculture has its role, while the Divisions of Parks and Natural Resources have their role. Putting them together would undermine the effectiveness of both. The governor and the legislature have to come up with a solution for funding our parks that does not cause more harm than good.

Christine Guhl Program Assistant New Jersey Sierra Club

145 W. Hanover Street Trenton, NJ 08618 Tel: (609) 656-7612 Fax: (609) 656-7618 christine.guhl_at_sierraclub.org

Received on 2010-05-05 09:32:24

New Jersey Sierra Club, 145 West Hanover St., Trenton, NJ 08618, USA
tel: 609 656 7612, fax 609 656 7618
or email Nicole Dallara, Outreach Coordinator, at nicole.dallara@sierraclub.org

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