(*This story was updated at 7:33 p.m. on 8/25/20 to include comment from DCNR.)
Scenarios like this, state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said, are why Pennsylvania’s state parks should be able to charge visitors a fee.
Heffley is the prime sponsor of a bill, currently sitting in the House Tourism & Recreational Development Committee, that would allow the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to charge visitors a fee in order to repair and maintain park infrastructure, hire park personnel such as rangers and lifeguards, and generate revenue to be used on park grounds.
The proposal, which has been introduced twice before, would address the issues at Beltzville and other parks near state borders where traffic is high and allow DCNR to decide on and implement fees at their discretion, Heffley told the Capital-Star.
The proposal does not state what the cost of the fees would be, but Heffley said it would likely be a few dollars.
Heffley, whose father is a former Beltzville State Park ranger, suggested using the bill to implement a “mild” parking or entrance fee at high-traffic parks, saying, “we’re not looking to charge an exorbitant fee. … We just want to make sure that there’s funding there to maintain it.”
Parks in rural areas with lower traffic would not be forced to implement a user fee, Heffley said. “We would just give them the ability to do that.”
Heffley said he sees the bill as an alternative to raising taxes.
He also clarified that anglers and boaters with licenses and permits would not be charged an additional fee, adding that the proposed user fee would apply to day-use areas of the park only, such as picnic and swimming areas.
The Slate Belt lawmaker said the bill could help generate much-needed additional funding for DCNR, which has seen a years-long backlog in park and forest maintenance totaling $1 billion, a 2018 report from the Pennsylvania Parks and Forest Foundation found.
“Those funds could be used to enhance the infrastructure at the park,” Heffley told the Capital-Star, calling the proposal an “opportunity to provide some of that funding”
Neighboring states Maryland and New Jersey already charge residents and non-residents a fee, Heffley said, adding that Pennsylvania adopting the approach would be “practical.”
But thus far, DCNR has “not been supportive” of the move, Heffley said, adding that he would “continue to have conversations with them”
*In a statement, DCNR pushed back on the proposal, saying that parks should be free to all visitors.
“DCNR does not normally comment on proposed Pennsylvania legislation. It should be noted, however, this department prides itself on providing wholesome, healthy outdoor recreation to all, which since the founding of Pennsylvania’s park system in 1893, has always been free. Our parks’ attendance numbers during the pandemic show people need that access.”
“We’re not looking to gouge people,” Heffley said, “we’re just looking to create some revenue.”