By: Larry Schweiger
The National Park Service just celebrated its one-hundredth birthday. I have been privileged to visit many if not most of our National Parks over my career. Sadly, far too many people never get the chance that I have had to experience some of the most magnificent places on earth. Some people will never even visit a single National Park in their lifetime.
Seeing this injustice years ago the late Dr. Maurice Goddard became a great champion advancing the creation of a state park within twenty-five miles of every Pennsylvanian. Goddard wanted “every family with a few gallons of gas and a picnic basket” to be able to enjoy nature and he spent his life making that happen. His final confirmation appointment as DER Secretary was held up thirteen months because he put a proposed park over his own career.
We are beneficiaries of Goddard’s visionary leadership. Some of the finest spots to visit in Western Pennsylvania were protected as state parks by Goddard and other forward-thinking individuals and organizations including Graham Netting, Frank Preston, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the R. K. Mellon Foundation and so many others.
Western Pennsylvania is blessed with some pretty special places. Names like Ohiopyle, McConnell’s Mills, Moraine, Presque Isle, Pymatuning, Erie Bluffs, Goddard and Point State Parks -just to name few- trigger good memories. In many ways, these parks define what is wonderful about living in and around Pittsburgh and they are free, accessible to all regardless of social class. We can sail, kayak, hike or just contemplate the great glacial forces that carved the Slippery Rock gorge when a supraglacial lake ruptured. There is much to enjoy and learn while visiting our nearby state parks.
Goddard also fought against many attempts by politicians to privatize the parks with hotels, golf courses, ski resorts and private marinas. Goddard was an outspoken champion of the constitutional amendment that declared “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the People” (emphasis added) and he beat back attempts to privatize parklands or even proposals for the state to charge user fees. Goddard started his life in meager circumstances and he never forgot the disadvantaged. He was a champion for all the people regardless of the color of their skin or their status in life. He firmly believed that parks should never be put behind any kind of pay wall.
Goddard’s vision was for full and free access to our state parks could be radically changed forever if State Representative Brian L. Ellis (R) gets his way on his House Bill 2013. This bill would take power away from the Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Governor by creating an unelected board of special interests comprised of legislative appointees charged with soliciting, reviewing, and approving private development projects in Pennsylvania’s state parks. It would authorize this political board to advance construction of golf courses, office parks, hotels, amusement parks and who knows what other encroachments that have absolutely no place in our state parks.
More than ever before, we need 21st-century places to escape all the screens, noise, and nonsense. Our children are particularly at risk while spending an average of 8-11 hours a day in front of screens. Newly published research out of UCLA found kids who went five days without exposure to phones, televisions and computers were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who were living in front of such screens. There is no better place for children to escape from their ubiquitous devices than by playing in one of state parks.
We must not give the decision-making for our parks over to crony capitalists who seek public assets for private gain? Make no mistake, there is money to be made in our state parks by damaging the very qualities we should be protecting.
In defending his bill, Representative Ellis claims, “We’ve got to move the state parks of Pennsylvania into the 21st century and deliver a product that the changing world is looking for.”
Really? I don’t think so.
The environmental and conservation community was able to stop recent attempts to pass the Ellis bill but since the Governor’s office indicated support, we need to be prepared for future efforts to encroach on our parks by educating the public about the threats.
Goddard was right. Our parks are and must remain tranquil places of reflection and contemplation, free and available to everyone in the community. They must not be carved up by some political hacks so their friends can make money by creating golf courses amusements and other encroachments so that just the moneyed few can afford to access.