Op-Ed: Keep State Parks Open in Government Shutdowns — Like Casinos

Eric Stiles | June 20, 2019 | Opinion
State parks and beaches can be held hostage when there’s a budget impasse; lawmakers should ensure they stay open and staffed

Eric Stiles
State budget negotiations could result in a government shutdown beginning July 1, closing all state parks and beaches at the height of the summer season.

New Jersey has been down this road before, with several near misses as well. When lawmakers fail to come together and agree on the state budget the resulting shutdown causes economic impacts that extend beyond the actual event itself. That’s why the 2006 shutdown prompted the passage of a measure permitting casinos to remain open for seven days in the case of future state shutdowns.

New Jersey’s state parks, forests and other natural and historic areas are not afforded the same treatment and close immediately when the state government does. Yet, besides contributing immeasurably to societal benefits such as recreation and relaxation, they too are significant economic drivers. According to a 2006 state report evaluating the economic value of New Jersey State parks and forests, “public and private spending of $279 million/year related to State parks and forests contributes to New Jersey’s economy by supporting business and employment opportunities that result in the production of cash income.”

Associated spending

When the report was prepared over a decade ago, our state parks and forests received an estimated 14.2 million visitors annually. In 2017, the number was estimated at 17.2 million. It is reasonable to project that this increase in visitation has also increased associated spending on goods and services such as gasoline, food, lodging and gear, that supports local businesses and provides for employment. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that all outdoor recreation in New Jersey generates $18.9 billion in consumer spending annually, 143,000 direct jobs, $5.9 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.

Working toward our mission of connecting people with nature, New Jersey Audubon is calling upon lawmakers to keep state parks open and staffed in the event of future shutdowns. The Assembly unanimously passed a measure to deem parks essential in June 2018, but it has stalled in the Senate. The bill sits before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and it deserves a prompt hearing. Without passage, our parks are vulnerable to being held hostage in the case of another future budget impasse — and unavailable to the taxpayers that support their existence — once the busy summer season begins.

We shouldn’t need to describe the importance of keeping places like Liberty State Park, with unmatched views of the Manhattan skyline, New York Harbor and Statue of Liberty, open. Washington Crossing State Park, where George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River which led to a turning point in the American Revolution, also offers unparalleled glimpses into our nation’s history. It is unconscionable that these, or any parks, were shuttered during the Fourth of July weekend two years ago and nearly again last year.

Essential places

New Jersey’s parks, forests and historic sites are both diverse and impressive: the sandy dunes at Island Beach State Park that represent one of the few remaining undeveloped North Atlantic barrier beaches; the serenity of pine, oak and white cedar forests and the historic cranberry bogs of the Pinelands accessible within Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. From the stunning views of the Poconos, Catskills, and the Wallkill River Valley at High Point State Park in the north to Cape May Point State Park in the south where birds pause in impressive numbers before crossing Delaware Bay during migration. And our historical attractions, ranging from lighthouses to monuments to birthplaces, offer places for reflection and learning, with many located in more densely populated urban areas.

These places are essential to the livelihood and great history of our state and should be treated as such. In a world where shutdowns are becoming commonplace, we should learn from the past and prepare to keep parks open. Shuttering parks with the state government robs taxpayers of their right to visit and businesses lose money. With the health benefits of exercise and walks in nature now well established, it is past time to give our parks the same consideration as casinos.