By Assemblyman John Wisniewski
With 42 parks, 11 forests and more than 50 historic sites, New Jersey has a rich natural and cultural heritage. But we may soon lose the chance to enjoy some of our state’s most special natural resources.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Protection released a list of nine state parks and forests slated for closure due to New Jersey’s increasingly precarious fiscal condition: Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Burlington County, Fort Mott State Park in Salem County, High Point State Park in Sussex County, Jenny Jump State Forest in Warren County, Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Monmouth County, Parvin State Park in Salem County, Round Valley Recreation Area in Hunterdon County, and Stephens State Park and Worthington State Forest in Warren County.
In addition, the department also said operations at three other parks—D&R Canal State Park, Ringwood State Park, and Washington Crossing State Park—would be significantly scaled-back.
New Jersey is in a full-scale financial crisis and legislators will no doubt face some very tough decisions when the state budget is voted on in June. But these decisions should not be made at the sacrifice of 85,000 acres of our state’s most valuable recreational resources. To avert the closure of these parks New Jersey must be willing to look into all options.
The administration could seek private business partners willing to assume operations at the targeted facilities to keep them open to the public and ensure the properties do not fall into disrepair. The right collaboration could ensure parks remain open for residents and tourists to enjoy. Handing-over the daily functions to a private entity would help us to meet the governor’s goal of reducing budgetary costs while ensuring the state retain control of the facilities. And, with 17 million-plus visitors to all of New Jersey’s parks each year, this could make a public-private partnership a winning proposition the state, the environment, and the economy.
New Jersey also could investigate increasing the charge to utilities and other companies that lease public land to reflect the current fair market value. Right now, large utilities that use public land to run power, gas and fiber optic lines through public lands pay just $1 an acre – 100 times less than the market rate. Renegotiating these leases could generate an additional $10 million a year, which would more than cover the approximately $3.5 million that will be saved by closing parks.
From the Appalachian Trail to the pine forests of the Pine Barrens, our natural sites are an important part of what makes New Jersey unique. Ripe with history, wildlife and home to our state symbols – the violet, red oak, brook trout, and the Eastern gold finch—our parks, rivers and forests must be preserved.
We cannot allow such invaluable open space to fall into neglect and disrepair. Keeping all of our parks and forests open and operating is vital to ensuring their preservation for future generations to enjoy.
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