Monday, June 27, 2016

PA Parks & Forests Foundation Letter To Gov. Wolf On House Bill Opening State Parks To Private Development

PA Parks & Forests Foundation President Marci Mowery sent the following letter to Gov. Tom Wolf Monday outlining the Foundation’s opposition to House Bill 2013 (Ellis-R-Butler), even it an amended form.
House Bill 2013 is scheduled to be amended on the floor of the House TODAY and given a final House vote TUESDAY.
The text of the letter follows—
Dear Governor Wolf:
On behalf of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation (PPFF) I am writing to urge you to oppose HB 2013 and its establishment of a Public-Private Partnership (3P) board.
For in excess of 125 years, Pennsylvania has been fortunate to have had leaders with enough foresight to set aside more than 2 million acres of state forest and 121 state parks for the general public to enjoy and appreciate.
This bill (1) encourages private development in areas originally intended as access to the natural world and healthy outdoor recreation; (2) restricts the ability of our award-winning park planning professionals to do their job in a credible manner; (3) introduces non-traditional use of state parks that are not supported by recent public surveys; and (4) jeopardizes and penalizes those private ventures already in place by introducing state-supported private businesses in direct competition with existing providers.
The proposed development is simply incompatible with the vision of Pennsylvania’s state parks as places of respite.
Pennsylvanians love their state parks and forests, as do we at the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation.
As an organization, we are dedicated to the stewardship of our parks and forests. We invest volunteer labor and private dollars into their conservation and stewardship and firmly believe they should be accessible to every Pennsylvanian.
We oppose the development of incompatible activities and facilities within our state parks. Resorts, amusement and water parks, offices, outdoor sports facilities, and golf courses exist outside of state parks in more appropriate settings.
Our state parks and forests were set aside to conserve our natural world and the very personal relationship generations have developed with them. In these days that seem to move ever faster, now is not the time to lose the valuable sanctuaries so many people have worked so hard to protect.
In 2009, the National Recreation and Parks Association and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration honored Pennsylvania’s state parks with their prestigious Gold Medal Award for Excellence in park management.
This award to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) was in recognition for our agency professionals’ skill in planning for and managing a diverse state park system.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) holds the distinction of being the only two-time winner of the National Parks Service and Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals’ award for our Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP).
This top honor recognized the Department for their collaborative approach to recreation planning.
Development of the plan included comprehensive data collection, with over 10,000 survey respondents; a steering committee representing 40 agencies, organizations, and commissions; three public input meetings; and online public feedback sessions, and the final SCORP includes 20 recommendations and 83 action steps.
A quote in one paper claims the need for the legislation is “to move the state parks of Pennsylvania into the 21st century.”
I would argue that there are abundant opportunities across the state for visitors to Pennsylvania to go to an amusement park, water park, or golf course. The state parks are there for people seeking active outdoor recreation like hiking, boating, fishing, disc golf, horseback riding, and about 20 other types of recreation.
With 38 million visitors a year, you could argue that state parks have it right!
The professional staff at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources consistently demonstrates an understanding of the changing needs of recreation in Pennsylvania.
For example, in recent years a small nature inn was built at Bald Eagle State Park, and an existing facility at Cook Forest State Park was converted into a bed and breakfast.
Strikingly, the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle is run by a concessionaire but is subsidized by the state because the costs to develop and maintain the facility cannot be met by the market.
Currently, more than 200 full-service hook-ups can be found in 14 state parks, along with hundreds of other campsites, modern cabins, camping cottages, yurts, and rustic cabins.
Finally, there is no need to create a pilot program to explore a 3P program, as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources already has the power to enter into public-private partnerships, and does it when warranted.
At present, 138 concessionaires currently operate within the system, representing ski areas, whitewater rafting, food concessions, boat rentals, and more.
Additionally, there are more than 50 friends groups across the state working in cooperation with DCNR in public-private partnerships. These groups represent dedicated volunteers committed to the conservation and stewardship of our state owned lands.
House Bill 2013 is in stark contrast to public opinion on how public dollars should be invested.
House Bill 2013 proposes to open our state parks for private development ranging from hotels to amusement parks to office buildings.
According to the bill, construction cost of these new, commercial facilities would be augmented through the DCNR budget, thereby diverting funds from needed capital improvements to existing structures already identified by park staff.
The SCORP survey found the highest funding priority identified by survey respondents as it relates to park development was to maintain existing park and recreation areas, followed closely by protecting wildlife and fish habitat, and acquiring additional open space.
Maintaining current facilities was more important to the citizens of the state than developing new facilities.
If the legislature truly wants to accommodate the people of the commonwealth, the investment of additional dollars in the development of state park cabins (which was identified by the public as the top investment need when funds are being invested in the creation of new infrastructure) and an increase in the allocation of maintenance dollars would provide a greater return than the proposed diversion of public funds to private interest.
We would also encourage the state to invest in the creative reuse of buildings currently existing in state parks, such as was done with the Inn at Cook Forest.
House Bill 2013 creates unfair competition and opens our state parks to private interest bankrolled by taxpayer dollars.
Creating resorts in state parks would create an unfair disadvantage for the state’s private resorts such as at Mount Pocono, Nemacolin, Gateway Lodge, and numerous others as well as small inns adjacent to state parks.
A quick Google search reveals 103 resorts in the state, a strong indication that when feasible the private sector will invest in the acquisition and development of lodgings and recreational facilities.
This current private investment approach, which relies less on taxpayer investment and more on private entrepreneurship, generates more revenue for the commonwealth than a DCNR-subsidized resort that pulls from an already-strained parks budget.
Private investment in communities outside of state parks can boost local economies, provides an increased tax base, and is more fitting to the intention of state parks.
Resort-like developments have a long history of failure in state parks across the nation. Too often, concessionaires do not reinvest in the infrastructure they are renting, placing a burden on the taxpayer to do so.
And the creation of a contractual relationship through a public-private partnership is not a guarantee of success.
For example, at Denton Hill Ski Area the state is now faced with a huge project at the park after the concessionaire defaulted on his obligations.
In summary, the Foundation, our members, and our 39 chapters oppose this bill for many reasons, including:
-- The bill politicizes state park management, empowering special interests over the expertise of trained professionals;
-- The bill lacks transparency (having been rushed through the legislature on a very fast track);
-- The bill has the potential to cost Pennsylvania taxpayers money through subsidized and unsuccessful development;
-- The bill goes AGAINST why state parks were developed—to conserve public lands for today and future generations—and promotes incompatible development such as offices, water parks, golf courses and hotels. Furthermore, it fails to provide funding for the subsequent infrastructure that will be needed to meet the goals of the bill—sewage treatment facilities, roads, rangers, traffic control devices, stormwater management, to name a few;
-- The types of development proposed by the bill—hotels, amusement parks, water parks, golf courses (there are already 818 in Pennsylvania!)—already exist in Pennsylvania, and if more were wanted and economically feasible, they would be developed by the private sector; and
-- The bill creates unfair competition to private enterprise that currently exist.
If you and the Pennsylvania General Assembly truly want to “move our state park system into the 21st century,” you could ensure adequate funding to tackle a long-term maintenance backlog caused by a failure to fully fund the Department’s budget.
DCNR could then continue to upgrade our campgrounds with full service hookups and construct camping cottages and cabins.
You could support DCNR in creating a study to move us forward with a vision into the next several decades, much like was done in the 1980s when the then DER created the State Parks 2000 report, a vision to the future.
A new report would represent the voice of the people, not special interests, and would include:
-- Findings from the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan study that outlines the changing face of Pennsylvania as older and more ethnically diverse;
-- Investment that reflects the desires of the people—investment in infrastructure, protecting wildlife and fish habitat, and acquiring more open space;
-- Changing recreational trends;
-- The fact that Pennsylvanians see access to recreation as part of their healthcare system; and that the high rate of obesity suffered by Pennsylvania residents, along with associated obesity related diseases, can be mitigated with ACTIVE recreation, not passive recreation; and
-- A consideration of ways to engage today’s young people in an appreciation of the outdoors—not as something to be exploited for private gain but as something to be protected and appreciated and passed on to the children who follow them.
Pennsylvania’s state parks belong to all of us. At PPFF, we and our 39 chapters eat, sleep, and breathe state parks and forests.
We know that when we put in a playground, improve an amphitheater, host a concert, or work on trails, we are doing what our fellow citizens want.
We are providing beautiful, natural, scenic, fun, and family-oriented recreation. We are continuing a legacy of protection and enhancement to spaces beloved by generations of Pennsylvanians and visitors alike.
We are helping our professional partners at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources serve the best interests of every person who comes through the “gates” of a state park, building memories that indeed last a lifetime.
Thank you for your opposition to HB 2013 and for showing your support of the people of Pennsylvania.
Yours in the Outdoors,
Marci Mowery, President
For more information on programs, initiatives and special events, visit the PA Parks & Forests Foundation website.  Click Here to sign up for regular updates from the Foundation,  Like them on Facebook or Follow them on Twitter.

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