A look at private development of Pennsylvania’s state parks – Part 1
Do you want to see a roller coaster silhouetted against the sky within your favorite state park? Not me, but 77 members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives thought that such a development could have been a good thing. I was disappointed to learn who voted in favor.
Earlier this summer, House Bill 2013 was defeated 123 to 77 votes. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Ellis of Butler County, would have opened the door to commercialization of Pennsylvania’s state parks. Golf courses, hotels, restaurants, water parks – you name it – all to be controlled by a new board of political appointees to be known as the Public-Private State Park Partnership Board. The bill failed to mention public review, nor did it identify where any new revenue might go.
This type of legislative move should come as no surprise. After all, some of our elected officials already want to legislate how the Pennsylvania Game Commission should manage deer – so now they want to tell the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources how to run our state parks. To me, it just looked like another attempt to take preserved public land for private use and profit.
In one newspaper report, a supporter of the bill mentioned that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is underfunded, and this commercialization would help it to bring in revenue.
I would like to point out that they would not be “underfunded” at all if the legislature had not robbed – oh, excuse me – “re-appropriated” the money from the state’s Oil and Gas Fund, which was supposed to fund state parks and state forests.
When pressed about where the money generated by his park-commercialization bill would go, Rep. Ellis noted that it was undecided.
Pennsylvania’s park system has been recognized as one of the best-managed state park systems in the United States. On their most recent park-user survey, DCNR found that 95 percent of park users are satisfied with how our parks are currently managed. Before deciding to commercialize state parks, let’s look at their mission statement. Those 77 representatives would be wise to take it into account, too.
“The primary mission of Pennsylvania state parks is to provide opportunities for enjoying healthful outdoor recreation and serve as outdoor classrooms for environmental education. In meeting these purposes, the conservation of the natural, scenic, aesthetic, and historical values of parks should be given first consideration. Stewardship responsibilities should be carried out in a way that protects the natural outdoor experience for the enjoyment of current and future generations.”
I have been thinking a lot about what I might like and not like about private development within our state parks. Any development should be in line with that mission.
DCNR’s Bureau of State Parks already has 150 or so concession-lease agreements with private individuals and businesses. These cover boat rentals, campground supplies, refreshments, bicycle rental, cross-country skiing, whitewater rafting and a few other odds and ends. Most are small affairs that provide needed services. So, public-private partnerships already exist, but they are controlled by DCNR – not a political-appointed board.
I discovered that there are two golf courses on state parks, but neither is in our area. One golf course is located at Evansburg State Park near Philadelphia and a second one in Caledonia State Park, east of Chambersburg on Route 30.
Denton Hill State Park in Potter County had a privately-run, down-hill skiing concession, but it closed in 2014 due to “financial considerations.” According to on-site estimates, it would take at least $12 million to refurbish the skiing infrastructure and open it to the public again.
There is a small privately-run hotel, the Nature Inn, at Bald Eagle State Park in Centre County. The inn was publically proposed by DCNR and approved though a public vetting process. The inn is tastefully designed, built with local materials and fits in well with the park. Besides providing accommodations, the inn can be rented for meetings and events, and the building is used to showcase green technology. Other inns have been proposed, but they did not have public support.
In my next blog I’ll look at parks in several surrounding states, and also how the vote would have gone if only my local representatives would have made the decision.