Today (Wednesday) Governor Christie announced the future of our state parks will be placed in 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. The model for the program will be Liberty State Park for which the DEP released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for concession and catering services in September.
The Sierra Club has serious concerns with the lease used at Liberty State Park. It is open-ended, limits public access and gives way too much power to the private company. And now the Governor wants similar leases to be used at more state parks.
Governor Christie has cut the budget for state parks and eliminated their staff as an excuse to privatize and give away New Jersey’s treasured assets to private companies. Governor Christie is privatizing our parks without public oversight, scrutiny, and pay-to-play restrictions.
Last year the governor diverted $40 million from the DEP to the general fund instead of putting the money towards our parks. Governor Christie’s budget slashed funding for our parks by 30 percent from two years ago. Park staffing continues to drop despite the state’s growing open space roster and the need to steward more public land. In 1995, there were 850 employees in the Parks and Forestry program. Now the program is down to about 407 employees and changes to the pension programs could lower staff further.
Earlier this year, the lack of staffing in parks resulted in the theft of historic artifacts from Ringwood Manor and Washington Crossing State Park. The governor is using these cuts in staff as an excuse to privatize instead of funding Parks and Forestry at past levels.
We have already seen problems at privatized sites. In the past, many of these contracts have been sweetheart deals for the park operator that have cost the state money and restricted public access. The state purchased the Cream Ridge Golf Course using Green Acres money for $4 million dollars and then leased the facility back to the company the state purchased it from for $100,000 dollars a year.
If a private company has a choice between a corporate event such as a company picnic and public access, the company will choose the money-making event at the expense of public access, as seen in Island Beach State Park and the Farley Marina in Atlantic City. At Skylands Manor public access is restricted for weddings and other corporate events. The state recently privatized Barnegat Lighthouse which is now run by the local Chamber of Commerce. For years we have battled against private golf courses and water parks at Liberty State Park and now these things could happen under the Christie plan.
We are seeing a dismantling of our public park system where it is going into private hands. We are losing public access and public control.
The DEP has a history of not collecting fees on existing leases or to private companies. A 2004 audit by the Office of Legislative Services found that in one State Park alone, D&R Canal State Park, more than $700,000 had gone uncollected from leases. The audit also found there were literally hundreds of leases that couldn’t even be found, much less checked for validity and payment history. Recently the Christie administration has been leasing state land to natural gas companies for pennies on the dollar for infrastructure projects.
Today the governor announced what types of corporate and non-profit partnerships the state would use to raise non-traditional funding for our parks.
The RFP and lease used at Liberty would be the model to get more private concessions and amenities in our parks. The RFP and lease have no safeguards to prevent pay-to-play abuse, sweetheart deals, or insiders getting control of these public assets. There are not enough safeguards to ensure adequate public access and public oversight are maintained. The lease places no limit on the amount the company can charge the public for these services.
There are very few limits on the type of commercial uses and we could end up with very intense and even not appropriate development in our parks such as chain restaurants, arcades, indoor shops, and conference centers. Will commercial uses such as theme parks, golf courses, and water parks be part of our state parks’ future to with privatization? These leases could mean restricted access, higher prices, and more commercial development in our state parks with no public process.
If you think there will be public access under privatization just look at the Christie administration’s proposed beach access rules that severely limit public access.
Under his plan two-thirds of the state park budget would come from alternative funding. Entrance fees will not be raised but additional fees for parking, swimming, use recreational facilities, and other services could be created or raised.
The governor is taking liberties with our state parks at the site that most represents liberty in New Jersey. This national symbol of freedom will have its public access restricted and other parks could be following suite under Governor Christie. Something is wrong when we take New Jersey’s state parks and privatize them. The Governor is giving away our most treasured assets.
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 plan also calls for large-scale solar panels in our state parks. The Sierra Club supports solar energy but not commercial installations on our public lands. There are better places for this infrastructure such as landfills, redevelopment sites, brown fields, and roof tops.
The governor called for “unique partnerships” to raise funding and we are concerned this could include naming rights. Are parks could be turned into corporate advertisements including Pepto-Bismal Assunpink Wildlife Management Area, Viagra High Point State Park, Fort Mott’s Applesauce State Park and Jeep Liberty State Park.
We are also concerned that unique partnerships and stewardship could include logging in our state parks, similar to a proposal in Hunterdon County last year. Although it was defeated, the Hunterdon County Park system wanted to raise funding for the Parks Department by logging Deer Path Park in Readington Township.
The governor called on DEP to take a “new direction” in managing our parks by “Eliminating non-mission critical functions and expenses. We are concerned as there is already a $250 million backlog in emergency repairs and $250 million is needed for additional improvements in our parks that these sites will continue to deteriorate.
Governor Christie’s budget signaled parks privatization would be proposed, calling for a substantial drop in park entrance fees and permits. Those revenues will now be in the hands of private companies and vendors leasing and managing our parkland instead of the state. The result of privatization is often a decrease in services to the public, higher costs, and the proliferation of pay-to-play contracts. Privatization often leads to higher rates and worse quality for services.
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. Many of the companies care more about their bottomline than the public they are supposed to serve.
The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest conservation organization and was founded by John Muir, who came up with the idea of having a national parks system. The Sierra Club has a long history with and understanding of park issues and privatization is a threat to the public’s right to use the lands that were preserved for them.
There are many solutions for funding our parks, from a modest sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment to a tax on ATVs. The state could also update leases of public lands. Currently there are thousands of acres of public land that are being leased some at a price of $1 an acre. The DEP should also improve lease monitoring and payment collection.
The state parks belong to all of us. Governor Christie 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.