State budget ax would fell 9 state parks

80 workers would be laid off
April 1, 2008 9:31:53 AM PDT
One in five New Jersey state parks would be forced to close at the height of the summer season and 80 parks workers would be laid off as part of cost-cutting measures forced by Gov. Jon S. Corzine's austere budget. The Department of Environmental Protection is proposing to close nine state parks entirely, slash services at three more, and reduce offseason hours at all 42 sites.

"These cuts are very significant," said DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson, who delivered the bad news Tuesday morning to park supervisors and union officials who represent the workers.

"I wouldn't want to minimize the impact on families who have used the parks, sometimes for a generation, and workers who care about the parks," she said. "These are painful decisions."

The list of parks slated for closure includes five in the Skylands region and two each in the Shore and Delaware River regions. Hours and services at three others would be drastically reduced. Parks targeted to close include High Point State Park and Round Valley Recreation Area in the north, Monmouth Battlefield State Park at the shore and Parvin State Park in the south.

The proposed closures would save about $4.5 million in salaries and maintenance, a small portion of the governor's proposed $33 billion budget, which looks to slash $2.7 billion to help fix the state's troubled finances.

Legislators must agree to Corzine's budget plan; the state constitution requires a balanced budget be adopted by July 1.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation and among the most financially troubled. It has the highest property taxes in the country, which average $6,800 per property owner - twice the national average.

Jackson said the DEP could not reach Corzine's mandated spending cuts for her department without closing parks.

She said the DEP looked at attendance, revenue, nearby similar services and whether a park could be effectively closed before making the list.

Some 17 million visitors use New Jersey parks and forests each year for camping, swimming, hiking, boating, picnicking and more. The parks slated for closure had 2 million visitors last year, according to the DEP.

Environmentalists say the modest fiscal savings are not worth the quality-of-life trade off.

"We have too many people in government who don't understand how important parks are for the people of New Jersey," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Not everybody can have a house on Long Beach Island or the Hamptons. This is where people go on their vacations."

Tittel called the park closings "shortsighted," saying that outdoor recreation generates $3.9 billion yearly for the state's economy.

Carla Katz, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1034, which represents some park workers, called the cuts "wrongheaded" and "draconian."

"Closing treasured state parks and cutting the jobs of the hardworking state workers who staff them is a grave injustice and remarkably shortsighted," Katz said.

The layoffs would affect full-time park rangers and supervisors, historic and natural preservation specialists, and clerical and maintenance staff. Seasonal workers would not be hired for the affected areas, but no park police or fire rangers would lose their jobs, Katz said.

Jackson said only Island Beach State Park operates at a surplus. However, she said the DEP was reluctant to raise fees for parking and camping because the parks are typically used by people of modest means.