By Michele S. Byers
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE recently unveiled a plan to make New Jersey’s state park system pay for itself. The need for park management funding has been recognized for a long time. Our parks are dramatically underfunded, and it’s time to look for constructive and creative solutions.
It costs approximately $39 million dollars a year to run the state park system. Compared to the total state budget that’s not a lot, considering this state we’re in has 440,000 acres of parks, recreation areas, forests and historic sites scattered across all 21 counties. The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection estimates that visitation to our state parks has tripled since 1980, to a record 18.8 million people!
But despite the park system’s popularity, only 21 percent of operating costs currently comes from user fees and leases. The rest comes from tax dollars, and all those dollars combined are not enough.
The governor’s plan aims to gradually increase overall spending on parks while decreasing the amount of money coming from general taxation. The percentage of the park system’s operating budget coming from user fees and leases would go up to 38 percent ($15 million) by 2015.
The plan would create partnerships with non-profits and/or for-profit businesses to run certain functions at state parks. Some projects – like expanded concessions at Liberty State Park and leasing appropriate areas for solar arrays – are already underway.
In the long term, the plan calls for raising two-thirds of the parks system’s annual operating budget, about 67 percent, through fees and leases. This is an ambitious goal. It is critical to ensure that the pursuit of revenue does not drive decisions on managing park resources.
If the state’s focus shifts to marketing and revenue rather than protecting the parks and natural resources for the public, it’s not hard to imagine things like commercial logging in state forests approved under the guise of “improving stewardship.”
But there are good partnership examples in New Jersey. One effective public-private partnership is the nonprofit Delaware River Mill Society’s stewardship of the Prallsville Mills complex in Stockton. Local citizens banded together to fund restoration of the historic mills when the state could not. Today, the Mill Society manages and preserves the site under a long-term lease, making the Prallsville Mills an historical and natural treasure for the public.
Whitesbog Village, located within Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, is similarly cared for under a permanent lease to the nonprofit Whitesbog Preservation Trust. The Trust subleases and operates a general store and complex of village houses from the 1870s. Revenue and rent from these leases are plowed right back into preserving and restoring the village.
So what makes the partnerships at Whitesbog and the Prallsville Mills work? Profit isn’t the prime motivation. These partnerships honor the public trust, recognizing these parklands were bought by the public for the good of the public, never to be squandered to enrich a private entity or cover operating costs.
With the governor’s parks plan, the devil, as usual, is in the details – and there aren’t enough details to predict how the plan will work. First and foremost, any partnership with our parks needs to keep parks protection and public access and enjoyment as its number one priority.
As the Green Acres 50th anniversary slogan goes, “It’s all yours.”
You can read the Governor’s sustainable parks plan at www.nj.gov/dep/sustainableparks/docs/funding-strategy-es.pdf. To see a list of state parks, go to www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/parkindex.html .
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.