According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), operating state parks costs $39 million annually. That figure sounds reasonable considering our extensive park system. However, there is a problem on the other side of the accounting ledger. The NJDEP spends $39 million, but recovers only $8 million in user fees. Imagine you have a great idea, write a business plan, arrive at those figures, and present it to a bank for financing. Proudly, you highlight the 80 percent annual loss. The first reviewer would take a glance, chuckle, dump the document in the shredder, and then head out for a more lucrative 10:00 meeting with Telstar Logistics.
I know, I know, the state is not a business. Using the General Fund the government should advance services that promote nature, encourage healthy activities, and provide recreation for all - no matter the individual’s disposable income. You’re saying those factors should be calculated into a formula more complex than the 39,000,000 versus 8,000,000 scoring rubric mentioned above. There are fringe benefits that need to be internalized, you say. A thorough cost-benefit analysis would show it’s money well spent, you argue. I get it.
But the flip side of operating in this manner, where the user does not directly pay the actual costs, is this: how many private parks have you visited? Not amusement parks, but actual privately-owned natural setting destinations. The answer is, not many - the government effectively runs a park monopoly. For if the government is going to undercut the true cost of admission, what incentive is there for a private landowner to build a park? Landowners, extremely generous benefactors excluded, are going to maximize the equity in the land when making a decision between fern-lined nature trails or heavily McMansioned cul-de-sacs. So, we have a thought experiment: if the state mimicked the private sector and charged residents the actual park-use cost, plus a profit margin, would we have more or fewer parks in this hypothetical competitive market?
Unless you’re a Libertarian, you’re probably cringing or shouting at the screen right now for all the responsible government reasons discussed earlier. But, as an avid camper, I see this disparity in display every summer. I can get a nice wooded, semi-secluded camping site in a state park for $20 per night, tax included. Or, I can squeeze into a completely commercialized, postage stamp sized site with no privacy at the Jellystone for probably twice that amount. I choose the state park. So, to the taxpayer at large, I say thank you for subsidizing my summer family outings.
Enter Governor Christie’s Sustainable Funding Strategy for New Jersey State Parks. Recognizing the imbalance, and acknowledging that existing formulae do not ensure a healthy park system for future generations, the NJDEP is looking to improve its financial footing. The goal: parks less dependent on the General Fund and one-time infusions of cash, and more reliant on stable, dedicated revenue sources. All this while keeping entrance fees low - no easy task.
You can find the report online - check it out. But, I think there are opportunities the Governor’s Office is missing in the document. Civic minded as I am, please allow me to add a report appendix outlining revenue generating programs at some our great state parks:
- Bull’s Island State Park, Stockton: Rent out the park for gubernatorial and senatorial debates and rename it Bulls&*# Island.
- Cheesequake State Park, Matawan: Have Kraft sponsor American Cheese related activities - patriotic and practical. The Kraft American Cheese Interpretive Center, Kraft American Cheese Krafting, Kraft American Cheese canoe races, etc.
- High Point State Park, Sussex: A recent study funded by White Castle shows pot smokers have a lot of disposable income. So, let’s capitalize on this trend at High Point. Just think about the marketing potential - the name screams for Cheech & Chong movie festivals, stoner music jam sessions, and hacky sack enthusiast meetups. Further, the staff naturalists could be retrained to hold educational demonstrations on topics like Got the Munchies? Learn to Identify Edible Berries in the Wild, or maybe, Finding Paraphernalia in Nature - from birch bark bongs to peach pit pipes.
- Island Beach State Park, near Seaside Heights. With the cancellation of Jersey Shore the cast are out of jobs - how about a NJDEP-produced spinoff show? In this version, a bunch of morons from Staten Island rent one of the houses in the park, butcher the English language, degrade society by a notch, and completely ruin the reputations of Italian-Americans and the state of New Jersey alike. What’s that? How does this differ from the original show, you ask?... hmmm, I see your point, good question.
- Wawayanda State Park, Passaic County. Because what New Jerseyan doesn’t love Wawa, here’s a perfect partnership match. Introducing the Wawa NJDEP Bureaucratic Shortie sandwich - fill out reams of paperwork and receive a whole wheat roll, organic lettuce, and generous portions of baloney. And, it takes three separate NJDEP departments only four weeks to make. Cost to the taxpayer equals $4,678 with a retail price of $3.99 at the register. Oh wait, guess I need to rethink this one.
So, how about it Governor? Call me if you need a new State Parks CEO. As you can see, I have plenty of untapped ideas.