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Guest column: Pennsylvania has room for more state parks, but may lack will

A recent survey commissioned by the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation found that two-thirds of the 701 respondents favor placing greater priority on funding state parks and forests. With more attention being given to protecting natural areas and more focus placed on the benefits of healthy recreation and leisure, this is no surprise. If there is any mystery in these findings, it would be wondering what the dissenting one-third has in mind.

In such surveys, the consensus usually falls off when the question is asked about how to pay for taking action on that expressed priority. In this case, there is a pot of money available, through the American Rescue Plan. The problem is that every other spending interest is eyeing up those funds. And the advocates of lower spending and smaller state government are looking to squirrel those funds away.

A few weeks ago, DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn was a featured guest on SmartTalk, a flagship program on WITF radio.  A veteran of state government service, she gets high marks for her advocacy and stewardship of a department that is not large in complement but is outsized in its impact on our natural heritage and resources. She is no stereotypical bureaucrat sitting in a dark bunker. She is out and about touting and enjoying Pennsylvania’s abundant attractions.

The story she tells goes beyond documented statistics into the consideration of value-added. During the pandemic, attendance at state parks was quite healthy, as Pennsylvanians realized they could find an easily accessible outlet for safely curing bad bouts of cabin fever. There is a wide range of activities for recreating and exercising in line with one’s interests and capabilities.

That is a big plus, but there is more. Not only is the collected acreage safe from development, but the parks also encompass incredible natural wonders, including diverse and sometimes rare land, air, and aquatic species. And in the current debate over what steps can and should be taken to mitigate unfavorable changes in climate, the 121 state parks are counted as prime assets on that accounting sheet of value. Then there are the economic spin-off benefits. Local businesses built around winter and summer sports, from skiing to kayaking, are growing because of rising public participation.

Listening to this, a question comes to mind. While we have achieved the goal set by Maurice Goddard decades ago of having a state park within twenty-five miles of every Pennsylvanian, does that mean mission accomplished? Has every desirable or at-risk parcel been locked up? Has the acquisition office been shuttered?  Of course not.  Especially when there are still counties without a state park within their borders.

According to the state website, park and wildlife areas account for 6.7% of the state’s land area. That certainly does not seem an excessive amount. This only ranks Pennsylvania 19th among the 50 states.

As is always the case, a chief reason behind the reluctance to expand is the lagging maintenance of existing parks. The backlog is not entirely a matter of policymaker indifference. Severe weather events over the past decade have taken a serious toll at state parks. The pressure following natural disasters is to fix communities first, which is costly and time consuming. Wilderness areas that involve discretionary activities tend to register low on the work list, in the minds of many.

We were shown the health and recreational benefits during the pandemic. Those are not about to diminish. And the commonwealth is falling short on the targets agreed to for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. State parks are admittedly a small part of the equation for dealing with climate concerns, but we really cannot afford to forgo any positive contribution.

If Gov. Tom Wolf is truly interested in a legacy, pumping meaningful investment into state park restoration and expansion would be a good place to exert himself. Do that which is within your power to accomplish. Conservation, preservation, and protection can use a better friend in Pennsylvania.

David A. Atkinson is associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Source: Berkshire mont

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