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.
The main reasoning behind the DEP’s entire privatization program is that New Jersey parks should not be supported by funds from the general treasury. These pieces of land are owned by and opened to all state residents operating them should be an appropriate state-funded activity. Given the New Jersey’s voters’ long history of strongly supporting Green Acres funding initiatives, this push for more and more privatization of state parks is directly counter to the public’s wishes. When was the last time a taxpayer complained “I wish the state would stop using my tax dollars for state parks.” In order to push through this privatization agenda the Administration’s first step was to replace an anti privatization Superintendent with a more politically fitting choice.
When a for-profit company takes over public infrastructure, public lands, and is responsible for public health and safety, we are concerned that their mission which is private and corporate does not include anything for the public.
Mark Pitchell has 35 years of experience running state parks, starting as a summer ranger in 1971 at Island Beach, 13 years as superintendent of Monmouth Battlefield in Freehold and another 13 years running Ringwood State Park in Ringwood, where we worked closely with him. During his career, Mr. Pitchell has had significant experience with successful privatization activities such as food concessions, boat rentals, and including shepherding the creation of a very high-end commercial catering arrangement at the Skylands Mansion at Ringwood State Park, which was the first of its kind for any New Jersey State Park. However, while Mr. Pitchell understands some privatization of certain park operations is inevitable, we believe concerns were raised regarding the privatization plans of the current administration.
What we see happen already is the removal of professional staff being replaced by a political appointee. Parks was never a place for politics since they have always stood up for the resource of everyone and above politics. Now with the plan for privatization of our state parks they are being looked at as a business rather than a natural sanctuary for the public to enjoy.
On the other hand Mark Pitchell’s replacement Ray Bukowski has no parks or forestry background nor has he ever worked in a park. He worked for Irene Kropp as an assistant also worked at site remediation program and air program, but has never worked in natural resources and parks. However, he has been working on the DEP’s parks privatization process, titled “Sustainable Funding Strategy for State Parks”. This is a perfect example of the fox in charge of the hen house.
Under state civil service provisions, in order to qualify to run a state park like Island Beach, a candidate must have a four-year degree in Forestry, or Parks and Recreation and significant experience in a natural resources program. Mr. Bukowski does not meet any of these qualifications, and yet he will be running Island Beach State Park. For an ocean front park, spring time is the most critical time for hiring summer employees and getting the park ready for the very busy summer season apparently Mr. Bukowski will not be preparing for neither.
However Ray Bukoski is not the only employee at the DEP without a proper background for their position. Commissioner Martin has no environmental education or experience. The Assistant Commissioner for Natural Lands, Amy Cradic, who over sees parks, fish and wildlife and historic sites has no degree in an environmental related field, instead majored in public relations.
By state law, the Division of Parks and Forestry is required to be run by a “director”, who “shall be a person qualified by academic training and at least seven years of responsible professional experience in the management of public parks, forest, and outdoor recreation facilities.” The position of director of Parks and Forestry has been empty for the at least the last 10 years and is currently empty. During part of this period, Assistant Commissioner Cradic installed two “acting” directors, who again politically appointed with no parks and forestry degrees or experience. There is currently no one with environmental or parks and forestry background in the top positions overseeing this privatization process, and now they have reached down to the day-to-day operations level to install an unqualified political yes-man to do their bidding at Island Beach.
The current administration recently advertised for the position of “manager” to lead the Division of Parks and Forestry (not a Director, as required by statute) requiring that the manager have “Three (3) years in a supervisory capacity”, with no requirement that the experience be related in any way to Parks. Note that 3 years as a general supervisor does not equal the statutory requirement of 7 years of responsible professional experience in the management of public parks. Apparently the DEP believes it is free to violate the express requirement of the state’s legislature that requires a Director, (not a manager) and which requires 7 years parks experience, not 3 years of simple “supervisory” experience.
Commissioner Martin apparently feels empowered to violate other state law requirements when it comes to Parks and Forest as well. On Jan. 1 of this year, a number of fees for entering and using the state’s Parks and Forests were quietly raised, without notifying the public, in direct violation of the state’s Administrative Procedure Act. Instead of complying with the Administrative Procedure Act, the DEP, without any notice whatsoever to the public, raised the rates in the hopes no one would notice or complain.
The push for privatization comes from Koch brother funded organizations like Club for Growth, the Reason Foundation, and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Governor Christie is following in lock step their plan to privatize state parklands. The playbook calls for first privatizing a small group of parks with partners including non-profits, which we will now see moving forward at Liberty, Wharton, and Island Beach State Parks. The plan then calls for bringing more and more parks into the system to push out non-profits and to turn the parks into an economic growth asset under private control. These groups want to get the government and public out of parks turn them into corporate assets. The result of privatization is often a decrease in services to the public, higher costs, and the proliferation of pay to play contracts
The state parks belong to all of us. The Administration is breaking that trust in giving away our public lands to private corporations that only care about their bottom line and not the people of New Jersey.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.