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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bake sales next for state parks?

State parks systems across the nation are struggling with slashed budgets, and are as a result imposing entrance fees, leaning more and more on volunteers, and pushing to drill for oil and gas beneath park lands to supplement depleted operating budgets.  Can bake sales be far behind? 

What is to be done? This article by Margaret Walls, Research Director and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, writing in Parks & Recreation Magazine, presents a variety of funding sources - sales taxes, lotteries, and revenues from resource extraction - that can be used to create dedicated funds to offset the decline in support of parks from general tax revenues.

The article is based on an excellent Resources for the Future (RFF) report that goes on to mention additional potential sources of financing state parks - user fees, privatization, contracting, and even reliance on philanthropy.

But hold on.  

The RFF report begins with this observation:

The 14 million acres of state park lands in the United States provide enormous value.  Approximately 720 million people visit them each year, and a recent study estimated the social benefits of the recreation they provide at more than $14 billion per year. This figure is far in excess of the $2.3 billion it costs to operate them.

Indeed.  And there is far more to the value proposition of parks - of public land - than that impressive figure.  Public lands generate jobs - at least six million of them, in fact, and upwards of $100 billion annually in tax receipts.  In Pennsylvania - home to the best-managed park system in the nation - outdoor recreation is responsible for about one sixth of Pennsylvania’s $33 billion tourism economy – the state’s second largest industry. The Keystone State's parks system is an economic engine, returning almost $10 to local economies for every dollar invested by the state, generating more than $1 billion in economic activity in nearby communities, and supporting almost 13,000 related jobs.

But they do so much more. In many ways, our parks define us. Pennsylvania's state park system - the brainchild 0f Maurice Goddard – does not charge entrance fees. It's a system to which the richest person in Pennsylvania and the poorest have equal access – and in which they have equal standing. Access to our commonly-held natural riches should not be based on ability to pay (though certainly some additional services and programming are). It is a right, guaranteed by Article 1, Section 27 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution: 

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Which brings me back to RFF's report.  I have great respect and admiration for RFF's work.  In this case - the sorry state of public support for state parks - they are dealing with what is, and offering constructive ideas.  But what is really needed here - when fundamental public rights are being eroded through cruel economics and a crueler lack of political courage - is not workarounds, but a healthy dose of outrage.

Public park systems are not businesses. They are public services. They have visitors, not customers. They are part of the bargain of citizenship. At least, they used to be.

States are starting down the slippery slope of taking the public out of the public lands. We are erecting barriers – financial and otherwise – to citizens’ use and enjoyment of their own commonly-held property. Opening them to resource exploitation that, in the long term, is unsustainable. Allowing “pay to play” to become the emerging reality on lands that have always been freely available to all. And making fundamental public services reliant on charity. 

Public budgets represent choices, and certainly choices have been hard for governors and legislators nationwide as a result of the Great Recession. But choosing to de-fund the public lands and to incrementally exclude the public from public property is a slow motion disaster and a signature erosion of basic governmental functions like the now-trite concept of providing for the general welfare. 

Across the nation, the concept of the commons – of natural resources that are held in trust and in common for the benefit of all people, and that are shared, used, and enjoyed by all – is at grave risk. This is a fundamental deterioration of our democracy, and calls into question what kind of society we are becoming. 

Do we really want to run our parks with bake sales, charity, and gimmicks? Are we willing to pay (shudder) taxes for public services, or not? And when are public lands no longer public? The answers to these questions are something that every citizen should think about.

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