We are writing to share the concerns of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy regarding House Bill 2013, Printer’s Number 3219, scheduled to be considered at the June 21 meeting of the Committee on Tourism and Recreational Development.
House Bill 2013 would amend the Conservation and Natural Resources Act to establish a Public-Private State Park Partnership Board (Board) to review and approve contracts with private sector entities for development, financing, construction and operation of recreation, lodging, and ancillary facilities in Pennsylvania State Parks.
Pennsylvania’s system of 120 state parks is an incredibly valuable asset from which the citizens of the Commonwealth derive multiple benefits. State parks provide opportunities for affordable and healthful outdoor recreation, nature interpretation and environmental education, while conserving important natural, scenic, aesthetic, and historical values. They also make meaningful contributions to community quality of life and economic development, generating more than $1 billion in local expenditures across the state and returning $12.37 in economic value for every dollar invested.
What’s more, Pennsylvania’s State Parks have been recognized as one of the best-managed systems in the nation, receiving a National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management.
This successful record of management includes oversight of more than 130 concession operations. DCNR has existing authority to enter into concession or lease agreements, including long term contracts for large-scale recreation facilities. Through their extensive experience providing Pennsylvanians with quality outdoor recreation opportunities, state park professionals have learned which types of public-private partnerships work best.
Accordingly, we question both the need for and value of a separate entity like the proposed Board. We believe its functions at the very least would duplicate decision making responsibilities of state parks professionals, and potentially could result in recommendations that are inconsistent with the mission of Pennsylvania’s State Parks and the best professional judgment of state park managers.
Our specific concerns include the following:
- Under House Bill 2013, the newly-created Board would enjoy considerable leverage and influence, and as such, DCNR could find it difficult to reject the Board’s recommendations for development projects, even if they conflict with state park management goals and priorities.
- The above concern is particularly noteworthy, when observing that House Bill 2013 provides no criteria for the Board to use in its review and approval of proposed projects. The bill contains a reference to developing guidelines for sponsors to use when submitting proposals, but does not identify specific factors the Board will consider in evaluating such proposals (e.g., potential effect on existing park users/uses, potential impact on natural resources/habitat, compatibility with park character and local land uses, level of long term maintenance and reinvestment required, demand for service/amenity to be offered, etc.).
- House Bill 2013 would require DCNR to provide all necessary assistance to the Board, including retention of legal, financial, and technical consultants. The additional responsibilities and related costs associated with the Board’s inventory, solicitation, and evaluation of proposed projects could be substantial. The legislation provides no additional source of funding for these activities.
- House Bill 2013 also imposes long-term maintenance costs on the Commonwealth by transferring management responsibilities to DCNR after 25 years — typically when substantial upkeep and repair will be needed. The legislation provides no source funding for these obligations.
- Although it would create a new process for approving potential development projects in Pennsylvania’s State Parks, and such projects are likely to be of considerable interest to the public, House Bill 2013 does not provide opportunities for public review and comment as part of the Board’s approval process.
Because of the concerns noted above, we are unable to support House Bill 2013, PN 3219. We encourage the Committee and sponsors, rather than moving forward with this legislation, instead to explore working with DCNR and its Recreational Advisory Committee and Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council to update the study on State Park concession and lease operations conducted by Penn State ten years ago. Such a review could provide helpful information on the views and preferences of visitors regarding recreation opportunities at State Parks and the experiences of DCNR and park agencies in other states with the private operation of park infrastructure and facilities of all sizes and categories.
John Walliser, Senior Vice President-Legal & Government Affairs, Pennsylvania Environmental Council
Ronald L. Ramsey, Senior Policy Advisory, Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania Chapter