The following are PPFF President Marci Mowery’s comments to the Tourism & Recreational Development Committee in regard to HB 2013 which PPFF opposes:
The Honorable _______
Tourism & Recreational Development Committee
PA House of Representatives
Dear Representative _____:
On behalf of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, I am writing to express concern regarding House Bill 2013.
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 would encourage development in areas originally intended as access to the natural world and healthy outdoor recreation; would place a financial, staff, and resource burden on a state agency for private gain; and would introduce non-traditional use of state parks that are not supported by recent public surveys.
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.
DCNR also 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), which for 2016 includes 20 recommendations and 83 action steps. 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.
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. 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.
The Department also has significant experience with public-private partnerships with 138 concessionaires currently operating in 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 sidesteps the long history of professional planning and management demonstrated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by opening our state parks to private interest bankrolled by taxpayer dollars.
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. This is in stark contrast to public opinion on how public dollars should be invested. 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.
House Bill 2013 removes DCNR’s ability to make decisions about development in state parks, yet places a staffing burden (with no associated additional revenue to fund said staff) on parks to oversee the new board proposed by the bill, to research ideas presented by the board, and to oversee construction and operation of these new facilities. The bill also requires DCNR to invest already limited funds to subsidize and/or build whatever projects the new board approves. At present, only about $20 million a year is allocated to state parks for major repairs and new capital projects like bathrooms, upgraded campgrounds, additional cabins, and improvements to recreational facilities. All of these already limited funds could be diverted for private gain at a cost to the general public if House Bill 2013 were to be enacted.
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.
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.
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.
In summary, the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation opposes House Bill 2013 and urges you to oppose this bill as well. The Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan is but one year old and already much work has been done to move forward the aggressive agenda approved by the people. The plan recognized that we have a changing population—we are aging, becoming more urban, and are more ethnically diverse. With these factors in mind, the recreation community and the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources is working to engage the changing face of the people of the state.
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 any diversion of already limited allocations from agency professionals who have already proven – on a national stage – their expertise in parks management. We further 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.
I would be happy to meet with you to discuss any aspect of the bill and/or the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan.
Yours in the Outdoors,
Marci Mowery, President