This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvania lawmakers set aside $112 million to sustain and improve state parks and forests in this year’s budget, one of the commonwealth’s most significant investments in outdoor infrastructure in decades.
While officials celebrated the infusion as a “tremendous down payment” toward enhancing the experience at Pennsylvania’s 124 state parks and 20 forests, the amount represents a fraction of the estimated $1.4 billion needed to fully address a backlog.
The state’s conservation and natural resources department said it could take some time for new improvement projects to come to fruition. Though parks and forests have received some funding for improvements in the past year, rising maintenance costs have eclipsed state spending.
This outpacing has left the state agency that manages more than 2 million acres of parks and forests across Pennsylvania unable to sufficiently maintain and update facilities.
Additionally, to meet sustainability goals, the department has added to its list of needs in recent years, keeping its backlog at $1.4 billion. So now, the needs list, which is maintained internally, includes $900 million in infrastructure repairs and $500 million in green energy projects.
To calculate the $1.4 billion backlog, the department’s Bureau of Facility Design and Construction conducts on-site safety inspections throughout the year, Wesley Robinson, a department spokesperson, told Spotlight PA.
The inspections help determine which updates the department should prioritize. The fixes can range from replacing older buildings and structures such as lifeguard stations and visitor centers to installing new shower houses on campgrounds. The agency also uses its funding for dam repairs, stormwater management, road paving, solar array construction, and trail extensions.
“It takes a little bit to get projects up to speed, whether that’s going through the bidding process, dealing with contractors, all those sorts of things,” Robinson said. “The main thing is patience.”
Taxpayer dollars don’t always fund repairs and maintenance at state parks and forests. In some cases, volunteers and private groups step in.
The Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, a nonprofit, maintains a needs list for public facilities and fundraises to get them addressed. A campground and bike repair station that opened at Ohiopyle State Park last month was underwritten by a grant from the foundation and donations.
Other examples on the foundation’s list include funding and labor for tree planting at Reeds Gap State Park in Mifflin County. The state is working to resurface the same park’s main road.
Though outside fundraising efforts are helpful, Marci Mowery, the foundation’s president, told Spotlight PA, regular public investments and long-term planning from the state would better help maintain parks and forests. She described the systems as “the goose that lays the golden egg” for statewide tourism and business revenue.
Pennsylvania parks hosted 40 million visitors in 2020, a 22.4% increase from the previous year. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says that attendance has remained steady since the pandemic, reporting 42 million visits in 2021 and 38 million last year.
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.
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