New Jersey citizens value parks and public open spaces as much as any other feature in our state. From the Highlands to the north to the Pinelands in the south and all areas in between, residents have been flocking to the State Parks and other natural areas as a respite from indoor lockdowns and the daily grind of congestion. These parks have become a critical resource for millions of people and the new wave of outdoor recreation has shone a light on the frail condition that the State of New Jersey has allowed the park system to fall into.
A new report shows NJDEP's operational budget has not been increased in over 20 years, which amounts to approximately a 40% decrease since 2006 when considering inflation. Staff positions have gone unfulfilled with a 28% decrease in staffing since 2006, all while State land holdings have increased by 13%. The effects of this under-resourcing can be seen on trails that have gone without maintenance, historic sites in disrepair, natural areas that have been ceded to illegal dumping, illegal off-road vehicle use, and the closure of critical swimming areas. These illegal activities damage habitats and endanger the rest of the public.
It is widely understood that positive health outcomes are linked with access to outdoor recreation, and it is no accident that Morris County, possessing the largest and most structured park system in the State, is also ranked as the healthiest county in the state. Our State Park system should mirror this example by creating more hiking, biking, and paddling trails and investing in the staffing necessary to maintain them. Creating more swimming areas on state land would be a great benefit to communities that have been subject to historic discrimination in participation in swimming as outdoor and social recreation. Maintaining trails, scenic areas, historic sites, and visitor centers is the least that the State can do for its residents. We have great staff, but they need more than a skeleton crew, we need support and more resources, including competitive pay, for maintenance employees, law enforcement, and naturalists.
The Fix Our Parks Campaign proposes to increase the state budget by $16 million annually for operations and law enforcement, to $52 million annually, on par with the national average, and increase capital spending by $40 million annually, to $60 million annually, to end the $600 million dollar maintenance backlog in ten years by 2033. These investments would improve safe and health-giving recreation opportunities in urban, suburban, and rural areas, and leverage private donations with state funds. Parks and open spaces are critical to the State’s economy and support thousands of jobs. Wetlands provide over $10 billion in economic value annually from flood protection. Forests provide over $2 billion in economic value from habitat, water supply, and recreation. Wildlife-related Tourism, including hunting and fishing, produces $3 billion in annual gross economic activity.
Without a dedication to supporting our State Parks, Forests, Historic Sites, Preserves, and Wildlife Management Areas, we will continue to see a steady decline in their use and thus dollars spent in New Jersey. By investing in our park system, we can improve the health of our residents, the strength of local economies, and the perception of New Jersey as a beautiful State with well-maintained parks, forests, beaches, and trails. Let's make it a priority to fix our parks now and secure a legacy of support for New Jersey’s precious public lands.
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