It’s probably easier for Pennsylvania to under-fund its parks than other government operations. Trees and wildlife don’t complain, and it may take a while before hikers, anglers and other visitors notice the deteriorating roads, bridges and restrooms. But according to a new report by the Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation, the neglect has reached a critical point.
As reported by the Pittsburgh Gazette, the nonprofit foundation estimates that the state has a $1 billion backlog of infrastructure projects across 121 parks and 2.2 million acres of forestland. The needs include $95 million for improvements to water dams, $110 million for roads and bridges, $66 million for water and sewer systems and $49 million for campground renovations.
While the state has added parks over the years, staffing is at 1970 levels, and that has contributed to the infrastructure backlog.
Parks and forests, which support tourism and other industries and promote healthy living, are too precious a resource to mismanage. Yet the state, perpetually short of funds at budget time, has under-funded the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and prioritized agencies with higher profiles, more vocal constituencies and more influential political patrons.
Fees from campground rentals and concession payments from park-based businesses don’t nearly cover infrastructure and operating costs. and the state hasn’t kicked in enough money to cover the shortfall. In fact, it’s taken money away. From 2008 to 2017, officials diverted to the state’s general fund $526 million in lease payments from companies that do oil and gas drilling on state-owned land. The state Supreme Court in 2017 put a halt to the practice, ruling that the lease payments must be used for conservation purposes, but the lost revenue will affect parks and forests for years to come.
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