With the state’s finances precarious, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is partnering with a nonprofit conservation organization to enhance the experience of visitors to three state parks.
The programs, to be run by environmental educators from Conserve Wildlife, will be offered at Allaire State Park in Monmouth County, Island Beach State Park in Ocean County and Spruce Run State Park in Hunterdon County, starting in the early summer.
They will be financed by the nonprofit group, whose board of directors has approved the partnership, but has yet to raise the $150,000 it projects it will need, according to Margaret O'Gorman, executive director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation. She hopes to raise the money from other foundations.
"With this partnership, we are building on an existing relationship with New Jersey's State Parks," O'Gorman said. "For the past few years we have worked closely with the State Park Service to support their programmatic efforts. This partnership allows us to expand our support for high-quality interpretation that is so important to the state park experience."
Others viewed the partnership more critically.
"It’s definitely the camel’s nose under the tent," said Jim Walsh, eastern regional director of Food & Water Watch, a public interest group. "The Christie administration has been very forthcoming with their views and biases toward privatization."
Walsh cited what the administration has done with the New Jersey Turnpike, where it is looking to outsource to the private sector the employees who work in the toll booths.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, called the partnership the opening salvo in a plan by the Christie administration to privatize state parks. "This is the strategy conservative think tanks have come up with to allow the privatization of parks and public facilities," he said.
"First they lay off DEP personnel, they bring in a nonprofit to run things, then they eliminate more staff and start hiring private companies to run the parks. This is how you manipulate the privatization of parks. Otherwise there would be a big battle," he said.
Others were less critical. David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said, "Partnerships like this are good so long as they supplement, rather than replace, state resources going to our parks. In these tight fiscal times, DEP must expedite plans to ensure utilities pay their fair share, not the pennies on the dollar they currently pay, for rights of way through lands the state holds in public trust."
Lawrence Ragonese, a spokesman for DEP, denied those allegations. "Being smart and using valuable resources that are available has nothing to do with privatization here. We are looking at ways to enhance the experience in parks and to keep them open," he said.
The foundation would not be replacing state workers at the three parks, O'Gorman said. At Island State Beach Park, the state hires a seasonal staff, she said, while Allaire has not had any interpretative programs for many years and Spruce Run never had any.
"This is a great example of how we can stretch our resources and keep our state parks viable even during a tough economic period,'' said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. "In the current economy, we cannot afford to run programs in all of our state parks, so this partnership presents an ideal solution that will benefit our park users. Conserve Wildlife is to be greatly commended."
Last year, financed by a grant from the Barnegat Bay Partnership, the foundation ran a "Birder in Residence" program at Island Beach that featured bird walks with an environmental educator and birding/kayak trips, O'Gorman said.
Ever since the new administration came out with a report recommending privatization of various government functions, some environmentalists suspect it is the prelude to the private sector taking over state parks. The privatization task force appointed by Christie recommended turning concessions at parks over to private vendors, saying the move could save up to $8 million. The DEP also came under criticism for a Request For Proposal (RFP), which sought to hire private contractors to handle land-use permits.