Op-Ed: Now Is The Time To Invest In Parks, Not Cut Them
By Larry Williamson
This op-ed originally appeared on PennLive.com October 16, 2020--
The state budget crunch caused by COVID-19 will force us to make hard choices. One choice that isn’t hard? The need to continue investing in our state and local parks, trails, and public lands.
In the chaos of COVID-19, we sought out parks, trails and public lands. These places—close-to-home and so easily taken for granted—have become safe havens in the storm.
Places that reduced our stress and restored our mental health. Places that helped us exercise and escape our homes.
Places that strengthened family ties. Places that gave us a sense we were still connected, even as the virus forced us apart.
Public lands have seen record use during the pandemic. State park visits are up by more than a million visitors a month compared with last year. Trail use has increased more than 60 percent.
And outdoor equipment sales are so high stores can’t keep bikes, kayaks and camping gear on the shelves.
In short, we have relied on parks, trails, and public lands to help get us through the pandemic.
Now is the time to invest in them, not cut them.
These public outdoor recreation spaces rely on dedicated state funds. The Keystone and Environmental Stewardship Funds support state park and forest infrastructure and provide grants to communities to build and improve parks, playgrounds, trails, boat launches and more.
The Pennsylvania Heritage Areas Program supports the expansion of popular trails like the Delaware & Lehigh and Schuylkill River Trails.
We can’t afford to let these places deteriorate.
This year has proven that public lands are essential infrastructure, every bit as important as roads, bridges and schools.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) recently announced their 2020 community park grants. These grants draw heavily on the Keystone and Environmental Stewardship Funds.
While a cause for celebration, they also reveal what we’ll lose if we foolishly rob these dedicated funds - vital construction and improvements at our state parks and forests as well as more than a hundred local parks across the state.
DCNR received over 400 grant applications in 2020 alone. Even without cuts, only about half of these projects will likely be funded.
Dedicated funds like the Keystone and Environmental Stewardship Funds support real, on-the-ground projects that benefit our lives every day. They provide shovel-ready work to help regrow our economy.
And they happen right here in our local communities.
Keystone and Environmental Stewardship Fund projects happen in every county. One in three local parks in Pennsylvania have received Keystone Fund support.
Our Pennsylvania Constitution recognizes the importance of the outdoors. Article 1, Section 27 reads in part: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
The Keystone Fund, Environmental Stewardship Fund, and Heritage Areas Program are critical to fulfilling these Constitutional rights.
Now more than ever, we must work tirelessly to defend them from attempts by the state legislature to raid these funds for other purposes.
Contact your legislator and strongly encourage them to vote NO on bills such as HB 2004. [Read more here.]
Larry Williamson, is the former Director of DCNR’s Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.
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[Posted: October 17, 2020]
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