The battle over our state parks has begun with the opening battle being the privatization of one of our most popular state parks, Island Beach State Park. The first step is the State Department of Environmental Protection replacing the current highly qualified Superintendent of Island Beach State Park, with a clear political appointed replacement, Ray Bukowski. The former Superintendent, Mark Pitchell, has raised concerns about the administration’s plans to privatize our state parks.
Parks have been the one thing that government does right and that people have enjoyed for years being above politics and commercialization. Now the Christie Administration is clearly doing both by replacing the career parks person with one with a political background showing this is all about playing politics and privatizing our parks, not about running our parks. Back in November Governor Christie unveiled his plan to turn the future of our state parks over to private hands, potentially limiting public access, decreasing services, and raising costs.
Over 19 million people visit our 43 state parks every year, as part of the $3.9 billion added to the state’s economy in outdoor recreation. Island Beach State Park is one of the state’s most popular parks drawing more than 1 million visitors per year. The privatization of Island Beach State started with the food and kayak rental concessions being privatized for many years at the park. And yet the state’s plans include further privatization of Island Beach including apparently “life guards”. Something is wrong when we take New Jersey’s state parks and privatize them. The governor is giving away our most treasured assets.
You can do privatization at our parks and bring in vendors, but there has to be clear protections and controls. They cannot use privatizations to limit access or make it too expensive for the average person to enjoy our parks.
In the state’s report, “Sustainable Funding Strategy for State Parks”, the DEP states that Island Beach is the only state park that takes in more money than it spends. In other words, Island Beach is a profit center that subsidizes, and has been subsiding all the other state parks. A concern would be that this money will go to other project or even to balance the budget not to help maintain or used at our state parks.
Plans for further privatization are that State Parks should be self sustaining and should not be funded from the general treasury. Under this plan, visitors to Island Beach should pay to visit the park with that money given to maintain other parks. How is it fair or appropriate that Island Beach visitors should shoulder this burden, and the general treasury should not? When you consider that many of those who use Island Beach had to get there via a toll road, the Garden State Parkway, and those who use parks in other parts of the state do not have to pay a toll makes this particularly unfair. Parkway tolls were recently raised as well, so that Island Beach visitors are now paying even more to the state for the privilege of subsiding all the other state parks.
Our state parks belong to all of us and now the DEP wants to make them concessions and have us pay fees for everything. Instead of everyone having access, it will soon only be people with money or political connections enjoying our parks. They are playing politics with our parks by pushing privatization while violating the public trust.