Cutbacks put some state parks on shaky ground

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Under a perfect azure sky near the beach in Raccoon Creek State Park, Mary Jane Kirkpatrick was stowing fishing rods in the back of her car and handing out swimsuits to her three nephews who were anxious to get back to the lake and into the water.

"We come here often," said Ms. Kirkpatrick, 58, of Moon, as the young brothers -- Devin, Travis and Eli Seibel, of Findlay -- scampered to the changing building nearby. "We like to fish and today they all caught some bluegills. They're tickled pink."

The only cloud hanging over them last week was an announcement by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that it would need to close at least 35 state parks and reduce access to state forests under a state Senate budget plan passed earlier this month.

That Republican-backed spending plan lops $19 million more from the department's budget on top of the $7 million pruning proposed in Gov. Ed Rendell's spending plan. The Rendell budget proposal is under consideration in the Democrat-controlled House.

According to DCNR, Mr. Rendell's proposed cuts to its $120 million budget would necessitate reduced staffing, maintenance and programming but no park closings.

"I've been coming here since I was a little girl and if they closed it, we wouldn't have anyplace local to go fishing or swimming," Ms. Kirkpatrick said. "With Clinton and the area growing because of the airport, we need Raccoon."

The department has yet to determine which of its 117 parks would need to close July 1 under the Republican budget plan for fiscal 2009-10. But department officials said the closings would turn away more than 3 million park visitors and eliminate at least $57 million in recreation spending on products and services in and around affected parks.

Park visitors, employees and communities with an economic stake in the continued operation of the parks are worried.

"It would be a shame if the state closed this park," said Carol Thomas, who, with her husband, Joe, is "campground host" in Loop B of the park's 172-site camping area.

"There's not many people here right now, but come this weekend it will be full. It's a nice, family-oriented kind of place, and this is really the only place many people can afford to go."

Raccoon, with 7,572 acres, is the state's eighth-largest park. Its campsites, 101-acre lake, boat livery, 400 picnic tables, 10 cabins, wildflower reserve and miles of hiking, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing trails attracted 530,000 visitors last year. Its operating budget for fiscal 2008, which ends June 30, is $1,364,579 and its total annual economic impact -- the amount spent by park visitors on supplies and services in surrounding communities -- is $11,443,596, according to DCNR officials.

By comparison, Cook Forest State Park in Clarion County had 507,260 visitors last year, a budget of $1,431,347 and an economic impact of $11,404,466.

Keystone State Park in Westmoreland County had 285,113 visitors, a budget of $766,385 and economic impact of $6,888,237. The Laurel Hill complex of Laurel Hill, Laurel Ridge and Kooser state parks in the Laurel Highlands of Fayette and Somerset counties had 453,729 visitors, a $1,767,827 budget and an economic impact of almost $12 million.

Raccoon's size and location, 20 miles west of Pittsburgh in southern Beaver County, would seem to provide arguments against its closing. But Manager Al Wasilewski said he doesn't know what's going to happen.

The park has already done some anticipatory "belt-tightening," including operating its maintenance crew with four fewer workers and scaling back grass cutting, utilities and restroom openings prior to Memorial Day, he said. It also is continuing its "open swim" policy, which, like last year, means it will not employ lifeguards at the beach.

"We're just taking it one day at a time," said Mr. Wasilewski, who is starting his 10th season as the park's manager.

Closing the park would affect 13 full-time and 16 seasonal workers and local businesses, Mr. Wasilewski said. One of those businesses is Valley Boy's Pizzeria, just outside the park entrance on Route 30, where the ovens have been operated for the last four years by owner John Hermick, of Hopewell.

"I'd lose a lot of business from campers coming in, rangers, and the girls from the park office [who] stop by on Friday for lunch," said Mr. Hermick, 43, whose grandfather helped to build the park before it opened in 1945. "So yeah, it would affect me pretty good, maybe 25 percent of my summer business."

Just down the road at the R.J.T.'s Ice Cream & Mini Golf, owners Ron and Junean Tranter said they stand to lose at least half of their May to Labor Day business if DCNR is forced to close the park.

"We started the ice cream store 20 years ago," said Mr. Tranter, 63, a retired factory worker, "and when the park's not operating, like during those years when the lake had to be drained, you don't see a lot of people."

Along Route 18 in the small village of Frankfort Springs south of the park, the Countyline Pizza & Deli is close enough that it offers free delivery to the campground, said Dorothy Livada, 72, the sole employee at the store on a recent afternoon.

"We get some campers that come in to buy firewood and ice in addition to the food," said Ms. Livada. "For people who can't afford to go far away on vacation, the park has a nice beach, boating and fishing. Maybe it'll get more people this year if it stays open."

To raise money to keep the parks open, Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, chairwoman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, asked DCNR if it would support leasing more state forest land for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, or enacting user fees and entrance fees for state parks.

Last year, DCNR leased 74,000 acres of state forests, bringing in $190 million. But gas and lease prices have fallen dramatically since then, and the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council has recommended that consideration of all new state forest land leases for drilling be put on hold.

DCNR spokeswoman Christine Novak said the department is considering leasing additional forest land for Marcellus Shale drilling.

"We're looking at putting together a leasing package," she said, "but don't think it will have anywhere near the success of what we did last fall because of the lower gas prices and because the last sale included a lot of the areas where most of the drilling interest is located."

Ms. Novak said the user and entrance fee idea comes up frequently. But because many parks have multiple entrances and aren't set up to handle fee collections, the department has concluded it wouldn't pay off.

"It's not something we are considering because citizens pay taxes that bought the parks and operate the parks and ought to get some basic services for that," she said. "And the use of the state parks, we feel, should be one of those services."

What happens next depends on how state House and Senate leaders reconcile their respective budget bills and how many compromises Gov. Rendell is willing to accept in a process that could stretch to July 1 or beyond.

Angelo Coradi, whose Frikken's Lunch Box was hired this year by the state to operate the concession stand at Raccoon's beach, will watch those negotiations closely.

"This is our startup year. They haven't had any food at the beach for three years," said Mr. Coradi, who last week was putting finishing touches on painting and wiring the concession stand that opened yesterday.

"I've got this contract for the next five years and I don't look for Raccoon or Moraine or any of the big parks with big attractions to close. Everyone has to tighten their belts at some time, but you just have to hope that everything turns around and turns out OK."

Don Hopey can be reached at or 412-263-1983. First Published May 24, 2009 4:00 AM


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