Award-Winning Pennsylvania Parks Face Budget Cuts
The Pennsylvania State Park system outshone finalists from Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina to receive the prestigious National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management recently, even as the state’s budget battle delivered deep cuts totaling $9 million to its prize-winning state park and state forest system, according to The River Reporter, Narrowsburg, N.Y.
The award is given by the American Academy of Park and Recreation Management, in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association. It honors excellence in long-range planning, resource management, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, program development and professional development.
Pennsylvania has 117 diverse state parks and three conservation areas. The system’s nearly 300,000 acres and 1,800 full- and part-time employees host more than 35 million visitors each year. From January through July 2009, state parks saw more than 23.5 million visits, an increase of about 3.4 million visits, or almost 17%, over the same period in 2008.
In response to the announcement of the award, acting Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) John Quigley said, “On behalf of the men and women working in our state park system, we are very proud to receive this award in recognition of our skills at managing our state parks and for our innovative approaches that have drawn people into our parks in new ways and connected them to nature through outdoor recreation.
“We strive to help citizens build a personal connection to conservation through our parks that can be life-changing, and that can help to ensure our natural resources are available for future generations,” he added. “We see ourselves not only as land protectors and recreation providers, but also as a model of best practices, conservation advocates and educators of our future stewards.”
But even as “America’s Best Idea” was being celebrated in the Ken Burns’ National Parks series on PBC, Pennsylvania’s “best idea” at the state level was learning it will have to absorb a 15% cut in funding, leading to potentially fewer programs, less employees and reduced hours.
The impacts are likely to be felt beyond park borders as well, since many park visitors spend money in surrounding communities.
According to DCNR press secretary Christina Novak, the agency is currently reviewing all operations and services to determine how best to absorb the cuts. “We will likely see at least service reductions throughout the system,” she noted.
“Since we knew reductions were probable, we did put about 500 of our seasonal employees (State Parks and Forestry combined) on leave without pay about two months early to realize some cost savings. These are mostly the folks who do environmental and recreational programming and maintenance. We have taken some other steps like closing swimming areas and some campgrounds early this year. And, we have had a hiring freeze in place for more than a year.”
Potential impacts may include less environmental education programs, reduced maintenance such as cleaning bathrooms, mowing grass and maintaining trails, reduced office hours and shorter seasons for swimming areas and campgrounds.
In a letter protesting the cuts, Marci Mowery, president of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, wrote: “These budget cuts will have consequences for staff, park and forest survival, to the communities that benefit from their presence and for the millions of visitors who enjoy them each year. This is no way to treat a national award winner.”
To see an eight-minute video about Pennsylvania State Parks that was part of the award application, visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us and choose the “Modern Day Legacy” icon on the homepage.