NEW JERSEY STATE PARKS ARE AT THE CROSSROADS
By Pete McClain
from Jersey Coast Anglers Association - May 1996 Newspaper)
The following letter to the editor appeared in the Asbury Park Press on March 30, 1996
The New Jersey state parks and forests, comprising 322,574 acres, 8.1 percent of the land in New Jersey, are facing a dilemma the likes of which have not been experienced in its 92 year history. Likewise, the 12.5 million annual park visitors will feel the results of a strangulating park budget cut recommended by the state's powerful Office of Management and Budget.
As a result of reducing the park's FY 1997 budget by over a million dollars, the 12.5 million citizens, who look to the parks for summer vacations and year outings, may find some facilities closed for four months during the winter. They will see unarmed and untrained park guards rather than a fine professional ranger staff. They will see fewer capital improvements, a devastating cutback in historical sites operations, and the firing of 16 personnel, while the failure to fill positions will add 20 more positions abolished. Personnel shifts and reassignment of supervisors, park superintendents, and others due to the civil Service mandated "bumping " of personnel as a result of the layoffs and failure to fill empty positions will cause inadequate staffing throughout the parks system.
One of the most ludicrous points in the Office of Management and Budget's proposal is to characterize some of the state parks as "seasonal" operations. Their logic, if any, is that some parks should not be open from November to March because the attendance is down 15 percent, and the enforcement instances are down 11 percent. Granted, great masses of people don't invade the parks during the winter. However, there are significant numbers of skiers, hikers, nature buffs, birders, photographers, fishermen, hunters, and people who just like to visit the parks during the winter months. One might wonder if the low number of law enforcement problems in certain parks may be due to a well trained and capable state park ranger cadre?
It's no secret that the present morale of the state park personnel is at an all time low. When, under the "bumping system" individuals are given an hour to determine to which other park they will move their family, it's painful. Other employees are told they may lose their jobs. It's a mental and financial burden which is difficult to comprehend.
Looking objectively at the proposed million dollar state park budget cut, it should be noted that the budget for the Division of Parks and forests was $23,413,000 in 1990. In fiscal year 1996, the parks budget was $23.148,000, down from the 1990 budget, in spite of annual inflation and state-mandated salary increases. It should also be noted that attendance in the state parks rose from 10,502794 visitors in 1990 to over 12,572,172 in 1995. For five years the Division of Parks and Forests has operated on a stationary budget while providing millions of man-days of recreation to our citizens. It's a credit to the Division of Parks and Forests, but an insult to the citizens of New Jersey.
It's a fact of life that the average citizen in New Jersey looks at the state parks as destinations for summer vacations, for weekends, and days off to enjoy outdoor recreation. Many citizens can't afford to take their families to the Bahamas, Europe or the Rocky Mountains on vacation, and they must look to New Jersey's fine parks as the only affordable alternative. New Jersey state parks rank seventh in the nation's state park systems in total acreage, which itself is something to be proud of when we talk about increasing tourism and a better life in New Jersey. Eco-tourism has become a recent state promotion buzz word, and the state parks certainly fill this role. It's ironic that while Travel and tourism is aggressively promoting eco-tourism and New Jersey historic sites, nearly half of the historic sites staff is targeted for layoffs.
The answer to this impending disaster for New Jersey' parks is for the Governor' office and those who propose the million-dollar budget cut to rethink the effect this cut will have on a state where outdoor recreation is a principal source of revenue and tourism is the no. 2 industry in the state.
The citizens of New Jersey have supported every Green Acres Bond issue to fund the acquisition and development of state parks. The 322,000 acres of state parks are a green oasis in the megalopolis which is fast consuming the entire area from Boston to Richmond. On November 7, 1995, 766,798 voters approved the 340 million dollar Green Acre Bond Issue. A million dollar cut in the New Jersey State Park budget will be sorely felt and should not be allowed to occur. There may be other alternatives like eliminating the "free Tuesday" when fees are not charged to enter state parks. At Island Beach State Park $15,000 a day is lost on busy summer days as a result of "free Tuesdays".
The answer to the proposed 1997 budget is for the state legislature to face the fact that the annual budget for the state parks has been static for five years, when the budget should have been increasing with inflation. The legislature and Governor Whitman's Administration should follow the lead of the League of Women Voters and recognize that our state parks are crucial to the quality of the way of life in our state as well as an important component of the state's 1995 22.9 billion dollar tourism industry.
The time is here when our state parks are at the crossroads of their existence. If we are to maintain the very fine parks we have been enjoying, then there must be a budget appropriation sufficient to support the parks, as the citizens of New Jersey have every right to expect.
Pete McClain is an outdoor writer and retired Assistant Director of N.J. Division of Fish, Game And Wildlife.