Lawmaker suggests private operators for state parks

April 4, 2008 6:15:12 PM PDT
A New Jersey lawmaker has suggested allowing private companies to operate state parks in order to save the state money. Assemblyman John Wisniewski believes it's a way to keep open some state parks slated for closure this summer under Gov. Jon S. Corzine's austere budget.

Facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall, the state has proposed closing nine parks and reducing services at three others. Eighty park workers would lose their jobs.

It is estimated that the closings would save the state about $4.5 million. About 2 million people last year visited the parks targeted for closure.

Wisniewski said the state should request proposals from private campground operators and companies that run recreation sites to get a better sense of whether public-private partnerships could work.

"They would be responsible for the upkeep, for taking the trash out, but then we take those costs off our books and the people of the state could still use those natural areas," said Wisniewski, a Middlesex County Democrat.

He did not rule out raising user fees at the parks. The Department of Environmental Protection has said it is reluctant to raise fees from camping or swimming at state parks because the biggest users are low- and moderate-income residents.

"I don't see there's any harm in trying this," Wisniewski said of his privatization proposal.

Keren Murphy, a parks and trails specialist with the Sierra Club, said no state has privatized parks. But it has been done at the municipal and county level.

"Privatization doesn't usually help the parks," she said. It does, however, often result in higher fees and lesser service, she said.

In New Jersey, such a proposal would face significant regulatory hurdles, which have been put in place to protect public lands from abuse, said Jeff Tittel, executive director of Sierra's New Jersey chapter.

He said there are better ways to raise the money to keep the parks open, like charging more to utilities that lease state lands.

Corzine's office also was lukewarm to the idea.

"The governor realizes these cuts in the budget are painful, and he is open to listening to people who come forward with responsible ideas that keep parks open," said his spokeswoman, Lilo Stainton. "But this budget process is about making hard choices and suffering short-term pain for long-term gain."

The park closures would take effect on July 1, the height of the busy summer season.

Facilities affected include Brendan Byrne State Forest in Burlington County, Worthington State Forest in Warren County, and Round Valley Recreation Area in Hunterdon County.

The state's environmental community has vowed to fight the cuts, beginning with a protest planned for noon Saturday at Round Valley in Lebanon.