HIT! Pa. must provide a bigger funding stream to preserve its parks, forests for future generations


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HIT! Pa. must provide a bigger funding stream to preserve its parks, forests for future generations

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The editorial board of the Harrisburg Patriot-News got it right with their July 31, 2020 editorial:

During the coronavirus pandemic, Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks and 20 state forests have spectacularly fulfilled their mission of providing “healthful outdoor recreation,” not to mention a desperately needed respite, for millions of state residents.

In June alone, according to WHYY.org, state parks logged about a million more visits than last year — by people desperate to get out of the house, children antsy for something nonelectronic to do, and hikers, bikers and fishermen who finally had time to pursue their passions. Mostly for free.

This era of restricted travel and public entertainment proves conservationist Maurice K. Goddard’s remarkable prescience and wisdom back in the 1950s. He aspired then to establish a state park within 25 miles of a majority of Pennsylvania residents. Over his 24 years as the conservation secretary, Goddard doubled the number of state parks, and today Pennsylvania reportedly has more acres of parks than any state except Alaska and California. Unfortunately, compared to Goddard and other giants of conservation, we’re proving to be hopelessly shortsighted.

While the value of our state parks and forests couldn’t be clearer, we’re depleting and squandering them. This is despite the current efforts of park employees and volunteers, who are as heroic in their way as many of the essential workers we’ve celebrated.

It’s not just that far too many coronavirus refugees have expressed their gratitude by trashing the places giving them solace. It’s that state officials have underfunded state parks and forests for decades, partly by diverting the conservation revenue stream that Goddard established to other purposes.

Although part II of the state’s mission is to protect them for current and future generations, our parks continue to struggle under the burden or heavy use, strained budgets and an ongoing maintenance backlog estimated at $500 million (or $1 billion if you include state forests).

Of course, there are other urgent pandemic-driven funding needs — for instance, for shoring up small businesses, ensuring free and fair elections, and operating public schools safely. But these needs aren’t incompatible with those of parks. For example, schools and parks could partner to provide safe outdoor education opportunities for children this fall. Further, with state funding support, parks could contract with local businesses for services. (Studies have shown that state parks are economic drivers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.) Beyond that, an upgrade program like that of the CCC era could put many to work.

There’s enough public money being thrown around right now for dubious purposes that we could creatively support both our parks and our communities as they support us in these dark times — and it wouldn’t have to be partisan. If we want our state parks and forests to be there for us in the next crisis — or even be there next weekend — we have to wake up.

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HIT! Pa. must provide a bigger funding stream to preserve its parks, forests for future generations