Op-Ed: Don’t Play Politics with the Garden State’s Parks

Eric Stiles | July 10, 2017 | Opinion
Our public lands should not be held hostage to state budget negotiations

Eric Stiles
On the last day of June, families across New Jersey who don’t usually worry about politics waited anxiously to hear if the stalled state budget would make it to the governor’s desk by midnight. It didn’t, precipitating an automatic shutdown of all nonessential state services — including state parks and beaches — leaving New Jersey families and visitors to make other plans if they could.

The shutdown lasted three days. Camping trips, beach parties, fireworks and parades, boy scout trips, church groups, long-planned family vacations — all cancelled because our state leaders couldn’t reach an agreement on the budget.

Campers already at parks were unceremoniously kicked out of the camping spots often reserved many months in advance. Social media and the press were filled with stories of vacations ruined, moms and dads wondering what to tell their kids about long-planned family getaways, parents worried about vacation time they had already taken in anticipation of trips.

The state government may consider parks and beaches to be nonessential. We disagree.

Access to our state parks and beaches should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the governor. All citizens of our state deserve access to these open spaces to get outdoors — to play, rest, recreate, fish, enjoy nature, recharge, and so much more. The benefits of getting kids and families outdoors has been seen in study after study. And these public places are paid for by our state tax dollars and revenue from visitors.

On one of the busiest tourism holidays of the year, shutting down the parks doesn’t make “cents” either. The economic impact on businesses around the state was surely felt with many business owners weighing in about the impact. Future loss of revenue will surely follow, as families may be unwilling to risk planning a visit. Leaving aside one notable exception which gained national attention, all of our residents and visitors were stripped of their right to relax and enjoy their publicly funded parks and beaches.

In 2006, after the shutdown of casinos during the budget stalemate, the Legislature introduced a measure to permit casinos to continue to operate during shutdowns in the future. The casinos had been shuttered because they could not function without oversight from the state Casino Control Commission.   

Surely, our state parks and beaches are deserving of similar protection. Our public lands should not be held hostage by state budget negotiations. We are calling on the Legislature to introduce a bill to designate our state parks, wildlife areas, and beaches “essential.” We should not play politics with our parks.

To join us, sign our petition and ask your Legislator to protect our parks!