Saturday, August 22, 2020

Republicans Want To Charge For Admission, Parking At State Parks As Pennsylvanians Rush To Parks To Avoid The Pandemic

On August 21, House members Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon), Stan Saylor (R-York), Lee James (R-Venango), Dan Moul (R-Adams) and Jack Rader (R-Monroe) introduced House Bill 2806 that would eliminate the current prohibition in law on State Park parking and general admission fees.
The bill would authorize DCNR to impose charges or fees for parking and general admission “to a specific State park in such amounts as are necessary to provide for the maintenance, operation or administration of that State Park.”
The impact of these fees would put the entire burden of running State Parks on visitors to those parks.
DCNR had been previously limited to charging fees for the use of specific services like camping sites, pools, ski facilities and boat rentals.
This proposal is in addition to initiatives this year by House Republican  to freeze and reallocate funding devoted to state and local parks for other purposes.
In April, House Republicans passed House Bill 1822 (M.Keller-R-Perry) by a party line vote to freeze funding for county conservation districts and from a series of environmental and other funds to support local and state parks, trails, farm conservation, environmental restoration and other projects. Read more here.
In May, House Republicans moved House Bill 2004 (Ortitay-R-Allegheny), that gives the General Assembly authority to annually reallocate monies from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, which funds projects in state and local parks, between participating agencies, instead of having an allocation fixed in law, into position for a final vote. Read more here.
In July, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said Republicans will be first looking to raid dedicated funds and divert revenue streams going into those funds to balance the state’s budget.  
They only adopted a five month budget in May and now have to fund the remaining seven months.  Read more here.
Those dedicated funds included the Keystone Fund, Environmental Stewardship Fund, Oil and Gas Fund and other sources of funding for state and local recreation projects.  Read more here.
Extraordinary Use
These efforts by Republicans to cut or divert funding for State Parks, forests and local recreation are coming at a time when Pennsylvanians are using state and local recreation facilities in unprecedented numbers.
In August, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had to issue an overcrowding alert for multiple parks-- a first in its history-- because of what it called the “extraordinary’ numbers of people using those areas.  Read more here.
DCNR reports use of its facilities has increased 36 percent over last year.
In June, the PA Environmental Council reported trail use in March and April spiked by as much as 200 percent in many areas of the state, all due to the pandemic.  Read more here.
The story in local park facility use is the same-- people are using these areas heavily.
$1 Billion Backlog
Before the pandemic, State Park and Forest users documented a $1 billion backlog in safety and maintenance project needs in these vital areas that contribute significantly to Pennsylvania’s $29 billion outdoor recreation industry.  Read more here.
In March, the PA Parks and Forests Foundation wrote an open letter to the members of the Senate, House and Gov. Wolf urging them to take action to address the $1 billion backlog of projects.  Read more here.
Economically Vital
Studies have shown for every $1 invested in State Parks, $12.41 is returned to the state’s economy, the award-winning system supports 12,630 jobs and generates $1.15 billion in local economic activity.  Read more here.
Overwhelming Public Opposition To Admission Fees
Public surveys done in connection with a new strategic plan for State Parks last year found 58 percent opposed new entrance fees to State Parks.  Read more here.
Case Against Admission/Parking Fees
In a January 2020 op-ed-- Why We Support A Free State Park & Forest System-- Marci Mowery,President of the PA Parks and Forests Foundation, pointed out a simple reason when collecting general admission and parking fees are not cost effective-- our parks and forests were not designed for it, some have as many as 32 entrances.
Here’s her op-ed outlining the case against these fees--
As we travel the state talking about the need to invest in the maintenance in our state parks and forests, we sometimes hear that the solution is to charge an admission or a parking fee. 
Well-meaning as the sentiment may be, here is why we don’t support that option.
First, our state parks and forests belong to the people of the Commonwealth and, as such, residents (and visitors too – who pay sales tax on services they purchase) are paying for said parks and forests.
Second, it is not cost effective to charge an admission or parking fee. Our parks and forests were not designed for this.  Some parks have as many as 32 entrances, including township or county roads that travel through park property! 
And think about the number of parking areas in a park or forest. Funds from setting up contact stations or monitoring parking areas would be used to implement the program, NOT address maintenance needs. 
Overworked staff would be set to monitoring and implementing the fee-based program NOT addressing other visitor needs and safety.
Third, even if fees did raise revenue, how long would that revenue remain with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for its needs? How long before the revenue was instead used to offset General Fund allocations to the Department? 
For example, the revenue generated for overnight stays and pavilion rentals used to fund maintenance. When General Fund allocations dropped, this revenue was diverted to operations. 
The [DCNR] Oil and Gas Lease Fund used to fund projects, but is now controlled by the General Assembly. 
The Keystone Fund and the Environmental Stewardship [Growing Greener] Fund remain targets EVERY YEAR, despite being allocated specifically to meet the needs of state parks and forests, as well as community recreation.
Fourth, Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to their public lands, as set forth in the Environmental Rights Amendment--
Article I, Section 27: The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
Investing in our parks and forests is just that – an INVESTMENT – and it is the state’s duty to conserve and maintain them.
Outdoor recreation benefits Pennsylvania both from a human health view point and from an economic perspective. 
Consumer spending in outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania is over $29.3 billion, supporting over 219,000 jobs and generating more than $1.3 in tax revenue. People who spend time in the outdoors tend to be more active. 
According to the website Health Communities Healthy Future, the estimated annual health care costs of obesity-related illness are a staggering $190.2 billion or nearly 21 percent of annual medical spending in the United States. 
By investing in our parks and forests, we not only bring taxpayer revenue into the state and employ people, we can reduce health care costs, which can also lead to a reduction in sick days for employers.
Having access to the outdoors improves quality of life, which translates into attracting business and increasing housing values. 
Protecting our natural assets has environmental functions, from reducing stormwater impacts, controlling flooding, improving air and water quality, cooling the air, creating wind shields, lowering costs for treating and controlling water, and increasing creativity, healing time, and memory in humans.
For all of the reasons listed above, we support free access park and forest system and support general fund investment in our state parks and forests. [end]
For more information on programs, initiatives, special events and how you can get involved, 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 TwitterClick Here to become a member of the Foundation.
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[Posted: August 22, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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