Christie rolls out plan to privatize parks, starting with Wharton forest

Posted: November 03, 2011

New Jersey will partially privatize its state parks system to help close a deficit and improve services, with Wharton State Forest in the Pinelands acting as a pilot site for the new approach.

The plan will keep parks open, affordable, and under state control despite a $31 million operating deficit for the facilities, according to Gov. Christie, who made the announcement Wednesday at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

Camping fees will increase, but entrance fees for state residents won't - and the nonprofit and corporate partners who contract with the state for services will enhance the park experience, Christie said.

Some environmentalists sounded an alarm Wednesday, calling Christie's plan part of a national conservative agenda to turn public parks into corporate assets, creating the possibility that an Applebee's, for example, could open on serene park land.

The plan reflects recommendations by a state privatization task force, led by former U.S. Rep. Dick Zimmer (R., N.J.), that the Republican governor created last year. In August, Gov. Corbett, also a Republican, suggested privatizing aspects of the Pennsylvania park system.

The change could decrease public access, giving private entities power to prioritize corporation rentals over the desire of weekend visitors to use facilities, according to critics of the plan. Restaurants, stores, and water parks could open in parks, they said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, suggested that the state could instead raise money for parks by taxing all-terrain vehicle usage and collecting lease payments owed on existing parkland rentals.

"He's manufacturing this whole issue as an excuse to privatize," Tittel said. "You have to understand that these people have an agenda to dismantle government."

On Wednesday, Christie promised that his plan will improve and expand services for the public while making the park system more self-sustaining, he said.

By 2015, 38 percent of the park system's budget would come from deals with private and nonprofit entities, such as the continued leasing of the state's four golf courses, privatization of concessions at Liberty State Park, and the installation of solar arrays on park land.

Eventually under the plan, about two-thirds of the system's annual operating budget would come from outside sources.

The state intends to contract out revenue-generating services such as food outlets, event planning, and boat rentals. There will be an increase in the cost for camping, boat storage and boat passes, Christie said.

New Jersey has 440,000 acres of state parks, with 39 recreation areas that cost $39 million a year to operate, according to the state. Fees and leases provide only $8 million annually, according to the state.

Wharton State Forest, which covers 110,000 acres in Atlantic, Burlington, and Camden Counties and is the home of Batsto Village, will be one of three pilot sites for unspecified "new, innovative parks funding and program efforts," according to the state.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said no jobs would be eliminated under the new plan.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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