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Increasing Fees in Our State Parks

Date : Thu, 13 Sep 2012 12:38:33 -0400

For Immediate Release
September 13, 2012 Contact:Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club, 609-558-9100

Increasing Fees in Our State Parks

New Jersey has some of the most heavily used state parks in country with more than 18 million visitors a year.Our state parks are the gems of New Jersey but proposed changes to Park regulations by the DEP could increase fees in over 30 different areas, add close to a dozen new fees and restrict public access.The Sierra Club believes these increases will not help our Parks and the money will go to the General Fund and eventually private concessionaires once the contracts are in place.There has been no change to the code to require that the newly generated monies be used for operations, maintenance and capital improvements in the parks where the funds are generated.Raising the fees now may be part of Governor Christie's plans to privatize our parks and shut out the public.The Sierra Club submitted comments opposing the fee increases.

"Raising park fees across the board in dozens of areas is a hidden tax on the people of New Jersey.Instead of the money going to help parks, it is going to the General Fund.At a time when we have seen Parks staffing to be at the lowest level in close to 40 years and the need for more facilities and maintenance, raising these fees to help the budget and not the parks is wrong," said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club. When the Governor came out with his privatization plan, he said it would not result in increased fees, and we are concerned the DEP is raising those fees now, ahead of signing leases with private vendors.For example the DEP has raised the fees for renting rooms at the Jersey Central Terminal while there is a Request for Proposals (RFP) out on renting the entire site to a private entity.Will those additional fees go to the state or the private entity renting the space? We have already seen this underway at the new picnic facility and private bathrooms in Liberty State Park that residents will have to pay $175 to rent.Money from that picnic fee could eventually go to private concessionaires even though tax dollars were used to build the picnic area.The money to build the picnic area came from a dedicated fund for park improvements so we tax payers paid for it once to build it and will have to pay for it again to rent them, even if they are empty.The pavilion will have separate bathrooms as well that are not open to the public even though we paid for them.

"We are concerned as the Governor stated under his privatization plan for parks private concessions will not raise fees, so the increases proposed now may be a cover for when the private concessionaires come in.The fees will already be raised for them," said Jeff Tittel."If there is an increase in fees it needs to go towards managing the park and improving visitor experience in our parks, not private entities."

More than two dozen fees would be increased under the DEP proposal.People will now have to pay more to boat, kayak, and canoe in our state parks, including new fees for places where they were never required previously such as the Delaware and Raritan Canal and feeder canals, and Fishermen Landing in Parvin State Park.We do not believe canoers and kayakers should be charged the higher fees, especially in places where they can go across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and put in for free.

"This may be the beginning of having a concession run the D&R Canal and boat access.It does not even make sense because people can go to the Pennsylvania side instead and launch for free," said Jeff Tittel. Entrance fees for some of our most popular sites are being increased.The changes would increase the fee for Barnegat Lighthouse even though it has been privatized.Fees would increase for Ringwood Manor, the Twin Lights, and Fort Mott.We have doubled the entrance fees for out of state residents which may drive tourism to other states.Someone from out of state renting a house in Lavallette would have to pay double to enter Island Beach State Park and might choose a different location to vacation.

"Ringwood Manor is being robbed yet again as it will cost more to visit it and this could lead to it being privatized," said Jeff Tittel. Most troubling is a new entrance fee for Washington Crossing State Park.Since the Park is managed by the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission, will the Delaware and Raritan Canal eventually charge entrance fees as well? Numerous recreational fees have been raised.The group backpacking fee has been raised at Wawayanda, Stokes, and Worthington.Fees for group picnics, conference center, parking, interpretative programs and even Wi-Fi have increased.Fees for marina storage and boats will increase. Just this month Sierra Club requested a permit for an outings hike in a state park and was told there is now a resident day use fee of $60.00- just to conduct a group hike in the park. Will all these fees be raised to support the parks or go to private operators as these functions get privatized?

"These fee increases can hurt tourism, driving people to other states.This will also impact our quality of life as people who cannot afford it cannot visit our parks," said Jeff Tittel."Olmstead said that parks are democratic by design and they are a place for people no matter what their background or economic conditions, they are for everyone.By adding all these fees we are moving away from the concept of parks to country clubs, parks only for those that can pay." Robert Moses tried to prevent minorities and working class people from going to parks he built in Long Island by designing highways out there with bypasses that were too low for buses.He fought for years to prevent a riverside park in Harlem.What they are doing now with all the fees is making it so that people that cannot afford them get lesser facilities. The new rules would allow with the approval of the park superintendent parasailing, paragliding, and the use of helicopters within the park.These could potentially be used for private events in our parks and we do not think that should not be allowed. We also have concerns with allowing hunting, trapping and fishing at night in our parks.This presents liability and safety issues. There are some positive changes as well, including a ban on the use of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) in all state parks.However we believe the exemption for special events must be removed.In the past we have seen such an exemption cost the state millions.A special event ATV rally in Allamuchy State Park cost the state more than $60 million in damages.This could also be used by private entrepreneurs running special events in our parks. We also support the restrictions on the use of paintball and air guns within our parks and requiring that charcoal fires cannot be left unattended. The changes do not address additional issues in our parks that need to be addressed. Park staffing continues to drop despite the state's growing open space roster and the need to steward more public land.In 1995, there were 850 employees in the Parks and Forestry program.Now the program is down to about 407 employees and changes to the pension programs could lower staff further.We are concerned lack of staffing led to two thefts in our parks last year.Valuable articles were taken from Ringwood Manor and Washington Crossing as a result of less security and less professional staff running our parks.Luckily the Washington Crossing artifacts were recovered.Measures need to be taken to ensure our parks are staffed at level that ensure the safety of visitors and maintenance of state facilities. We are also concerned about the failure to properly manage and maintain our parks.There are proposals by the DEP to clear cut large sections of Bulls Island State Park including an old growth sycamore grove that is irreplaceable.We are concerned this is being done to either privatize the park or indifference.Our parks may be further threatened by proposed legislation that would allow logging in our parks. We are concerned that fees are being increased and staffing issues are not being addressed as an excuse to privatize more facilities within our parks.We have already seen problems at privatized sites.In the past many of these contracts have been sweetheart deals for the park operator that have cost the state money and restricted public access.The state purchased the Cream Ridge Golf Course using Green Acres money for $ 4 million dollars and then leased the facility back to the company the state purchased it from for $120,000 dollars a year. If a private company has a choice between a corporate event such as a company picnic and public access, the company will choose the money-making event at the expense of public access, as seen in Island Beach State Park and the Farley Marina in Atlantic City.At Skylands Manor public access is restricted for weddings and other corporate events.The state recently privatized Barnegat Lighthouse which is now run by the local Chamber of Commerce.For years we have battled against private golf courses and water parks at Liberty State Park because of such concerns.

"We are seeing a dismantling of our public park system where it is going into private hands.We are losing public access and public control," said Jeff Tittel. The DEP has a history of not collecting fees on existing leases or to private companies.A 2004 audit by the Office of Legislative Services found that in one State Park alone, D&R Canal State Park, more than $700,000 had gone uncollected from leases.The audit also found there were literally hundreds of leases that couldn't even be found, much less checked for validity and payment history.Recently the Christie administration has been leasing state land to natural gas companies for pennies on the dollar for infrastructure projects. Fees at Liberty State Park are increasing and this is the Park the administration is using the model to get more private concessions and amenities in our parks.The DEP is issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) and lease that have no safeguards to prevent pay-to-play abuse, sweetheart deals, or insiders getting control of these public assets.There are not enough safeguards to ensure adequate public access and public oversight are maintained.The lease places no limit on the amount the company can charge the public for these services.There are very few limits on the type of commercial uses and we could end up with very intense and even not appropriate development in our parks such as chain restaurants, arcades, indoor shops, and conference centers. The Sierra Club supports allowing some concessions in parks as long as it enhances the visitor experience, it does not block public access, and it does not add new fees for current uses like swimming.Concessionaires need to be affordable; we cannot turn our parks into private country clubs. The park must continue to be run by professional, trained park staff and not run by private management companies or the vendors. The DEP needs to propose rules for park management dealing with concessions, vendors, and other private uses.

"New Jersey State Parks are the gems of New Jersey.They are treasured by all of us as a place for recreation, to see historic sites, or spend time with our families.These treasures are also being coveted by private concessionaires and we are concerned the Christie administration is more focused on privatization then the public using the parks that belong to them.These are our Yellowstones and Yosemites.They are held in the public trust.We are concerned higher fees, less staff, and cuts in services are all part of the plan to turn these parks over to outside, private companies that will manage the parks for their benefit, not ours," said Jeff Tittel. The comment period for the new rules ends tomorrow, September 14^th .

-- 
Kate Millsaps
Program Assistant
NJ Chapter of the Sierra Club
609-656-7612
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Received on 2012-09-13 09:38:33

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