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State parks should remain free of charge

State parks usually begin taking the proverbial back seat at this time of the year as daytime temperatures inch downward and, for many people, the leisure time available during the summer months gives way to what people refer to as the everyday grind.

But this weekend, which people often refer to as the unofficial end of summer (autumn actually begins on Sept. 22), regular park goers and taxpayers in general ought to pay attention to what is happening on the state parks front.

What is happening — or at least being proposed — is troubling and should be rejected by the state Legislature.

Said another way, what is being proposed should die in committee, never again to be resurrected.

However, the idea that is being tossed around in Harrisburg isn’t really new. It merely has not gained traction up to now and it should not, going forward.

A bill before the state House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee would extend the authority of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources beyond existing user fees for such state parks amenities as marinas, camping and cabin rentals.

House Bill 2806, sponsored by Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, would give the DCNR freedom to impose general entrance and parking fees at the 121 state recreational facilities.

Additionally, a specific state park would be authorized to set the fees in amounts necessary to provide for the maintenance, operation or administration of that facility.

What 2806 would do, then, is slap fees on state residents for use of a facility that they in fact own.

Once in place, such fees would remove some of the pressure from the Legislature to find the money state government has provided traditionally to keep the parks operating and maintained.

Suddenly, the parks would become accessible only to people who could afford to pay the fees.

Such a scenario is unacceptable and should be rejected quickly by right-thinking lawmakers — again, even before the plan is allowed to move beyond committee consideration.

Meanwhile, one of the bases for Heffley’s bill is the overcrowding that has been experienced this year at some parks due to the coronavirus situation.

In numerous places, people have converged on the parks’ open-air opportunities as indoor activities have been discouraged.

It is safe to say that 2020’s overcrowding is not destined to be a permanent situation, even if parks attendance remains healthier than it has been in recent years.

COVID-19 presumably will be conquered, and some of the people who have converged on the parks this summer will spend less time at them as other activities return to normal.

DCNR currently is drafting a new strategic plan — due this year — to guide the state parks for the next quarter-century.

Commendably, a preliminary draft of that plan released last fall emphasizes the need to protect dedicated sources of conservation funding for the parks but does not include entrance fees.

Heffley was unsuccessful in getting his idea passed in two previous legislative sessions, and the fate of his idea should be the same this time. The state parks system, an economic engine for many communities, has been free since its founding in 1893 and should remain that way.

On second thought, the only people who should have to pay a fee for entry to state parks are lawmakers who get aboard the preposterous idea of making others pay.

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