New Castle News

May 2, 2013

Senate OKs $59 million for parks

John Finnerty
CNHI

HARRISBURG — The state Senate Wednesday voted to funnel $59 million in tax money from real estate transfers to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for state parks and other recreation activities.

The move comes a year after Gov. Tom Corbett tried to end what PennFuture president George Jugovic described as “one of the most successful conservation programs in Pennsylvania history” by diverting the money from the Keystone Recreation and Conservation Fund into the state’s general fund.

The Corbett administration argued that in tough economic times, the move would be an example of how the DCNR could share the belt-tightening expected in all state agencies.

But environmentalists argued the money wasn’t really the agency’s, the fund was created specifically to help state parks, libraries and other similar community efforts, Jugovic said.

After intense lobbying by PennFuture and likeminded groups, lawmakers broke with the governor.

“Basically, there are 2,000 community park projects that have taken place because of this fund and 444 trail projects that have benefited from this fund,” said Andrew Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust. “There were a lot of people who were alarmed that the fund was in jeopardy and contacted their legislators to let them know.”

Funding was quietly restored, a move that was largely lost in the hectic final days of the budget discussions last year, he said.

Much of the money will go to improving state parks. But even with the funding in place, the money in the Keystone Fund is far short of the $59 million authorized by the Senate bill.

The Keystone fund provides about $30 million a year to DCNR. That money is divided between the state parks and forests and local efforts aimed at creating recreational activities.

The agency will prioritize projects once the budget is finally adopted, said Christina Novak, spokeswoman for  DCNR.

“Just because it’s on the list doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it won’t happen if it’s not on the list,” Novak said.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources can dip into other accounts to complete projects that are needed but cannot be paid for using the Keystone fund, she said.

The Pennsylvania Land Trust estimated that between 1999 and 2010, the Keystone fund funneled $133 million toward state parks.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)