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Proposals would open state parks to golf, water slides and hotels

Pennsylvania’s award-winning parks could be better if golf courses, hotels. inns, restaurants, amusement parks, water slides and other outdoor sports facilities were available inside the parks, according to two Republican state representatives who have introduced legislation that would open the tent flap to such development.

Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, has proposed amending the 1995 Conservation and Natural Resources Act to allow development of all of those recreational and lodging amenities, along with the establishment of a new politically appointed Public-Private State Park Partnership Board to propose and oversee development projects.

And Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, introduced legislation Monday that would create the Arnold Palmer Trails Program to obtain a license for the use of the Latrobe golfer’s name and oversee construction of four in-park golf courses that reflect “the golf course design philosophy of Arnold Palmer.”

Mr. Ellis’ proposal, H.B. 2013, which was referred to the Committee on Tourism and Recreational Development Tuesday and could be rushed to a vote by the full house, drew strong opposition from environmental organizations, which said the park development proposals do not support the conservation and outdoor recreation mission of the parks and could usurp the professional judgement of park managers.

A letter to the house committee members sent Monday by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania Chapter, noted that the state’s 121 parks are “an incredibly valuable asset” providing a multitude of affordable, healthful outdoor recreation opportunities, while “conserving important natural, scenic, aesthetic and historical values.”

The letter noted that the state park system, which attracts 40 million visitors a year, generates more than $1 billion in local expenditures annually, and won a National Gold Medal for recreation and management excellence in 2009-11 from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association.

Asked if Gov. Tom Wolf supports the parks development legislation, his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, issued a statement saying, “The administration is engaged in productive conversations with Rep. Ellis regarding this legislation. We will continue working with him to reach agreement on the language.”

Mr. Sheridan declined to respond to specific questions about whether the legislation is part of a budget deal to sell off development rights in state parks and create a new revenue stream, or the widespread opposition to the proposal by environmental organizations.

“While there are varied uses of state lands, our parks shouldn’t be used as piggy-banks by the [Wolf] administration or the legislature,” said Davitt Woodwell, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a statewide environmental organization. “These bills rip at the heart of Pennsylvania’s park system.”

Attorney John Childe, representing the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund, sent a letter Wednesday to the governor and state general assembly members, notifying them the organization will file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the legislation for violating the public trust provisions of the state Constitution, which require officials to conserve and maintain the natural resources of the state park system.

Other groups opposed to the legislation include PennFuture, the Sierra Club, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, Clean Water Action and the Keystone Trails Association.

“This is one of the biggest attacks on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the state’s public lands system in quite some time,” said Matthew Stepp, PennFuture policy director. “It poses significant land management issues. I am concerned it’s part of the budget negotiations and that’s why it’s moving through committee now. It’s the only reason that makes sense.”

Mr. Ellis did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Christiana, whose legislation, H.B. 2188, was referred to the Committee on State Government Monday, said his bill’s introduction is appropriate at the end of the U.S. Open at Oakmont and in the middle of the state.budget process.

“The state park system has been stagnant for some time. My bill and the other legislation are ways to increase utilization of our parks, diversify users and increase recreation opportunities,” said Mr. Chirstiana, who is a golfer with a 5.8 handicap.

He dismissed the concerns of environmental organizations, citing “several studies that say golf courses make for a better wildlife management environment,” and adding: “They can be developed to protect the environment and make it even better.”

Cori Britt, vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises Inc., said the corporation that manages Mr. Palmer’s brand and name, wasn’t aware of Mr. Chritiana’s bill and hadn’t been contacted by anyone about endorsing the plan or securing the right to use Mr. Palmer’s name.

Mr. Britt declined to comment on a March 2011 Orlando Sentinel newspaper account about an unsuccessful proposal to put golf courses in Florida state parks that references a statement by Mr. Palmer’s golf course design company. The company is quoted as saying ”although it likes the idea of using golf to promote tourism, ’there are alternative options than using our state parks for new golf course development.’” 

The Florida park golf courses would have been designed by Jack Nicklaus.

The full text of H.B. 2013 and H.B. 2188 is here

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey