In the coming months, our Pennsylvania state lawmakers are going to have some tough decisions to make. Back in the height of chaos of this pandemic, they opted to pass only 5/12ths of the state 2020-21 budget, leaving the tough decisions until the fall. Fair enough, but now the time has come to pass the remaining 7/12ths. And the numbers are daunting — some say we are looking at a deficit over $5 billion resulting from a crippled economy and massive public health expenditures.
It is absolutely critical that our lawmakers do not further cripple our economy and jeopardize the health of Pennsylvania residents by decreasing our investment in parks, trails, and open space. If we have learned one thing from this crisis, it is that our trails and parks are absolutely vital to the well-being of the mental and physical health of our residents. State park visitation has increased by more than 30% during this pandemic, and trail use is up statewide by 52%, with some trails seeing a 100% to 200% increase in use. Further, trail and park projects are economic stimulators on many fronts, even during this crisis, as these projects continue to infuse millions of dollars into local economies during design and construction, and subsequently by supporting the recreation and hospitality industries and attracting local tourism.
The primary and most consistent funding for these crucial assets comes through the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and two special funds, the Keystone Fund and the Environmental Stewardship Fund. History has shown us that these three sources are very vulnerable to raiding when difficult budget decisions need to be made. It is imperative that in this crisis, our leaders resist that inclination, and it is very clear that our residents feel strongly about this.
In a recent poll, 90% of voters surveyed stated that they want our Pennsylvania legislators to address important environmental priorities, and 85% agreed that open space and access to the outdoors is now more important to them than ever. Tellingly, over 60% of those surveyed also supported increasing funding for environmental priorities, even if it means raising taxes and fees, and 62% would prefer to see cuts in other areas of the budget if cuts need to be made.
The road to recovery from this pandemic is going to be long and hard. It is crucial that our leaders are thoughtful in allocating where our limited resources are invested and continue to fully fund the programs that have the most meaningful, lasting, and positive return on investment. DCNR, the Keystone Fund, and the Environmental Stewardship Fund are such programs and must be fully funded, despite our fiscal challenges.
Pennsylvania legislators: Safeguard the mental, physical, and economic well-being of Pennsylvania residents by protecting the funding for DCNR, the Keystone Fund, and the Environmental Stewardship Fund.
Elaine Paul Schaefer is a member of Delaware County Council and the executive director of Schuylkill River Greenways NHA. She can be reached at email@example.com.