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Lawmakers skeptical of idea of park entrance fees

Lake Jean at Ricketts Glen State Park near Benton on Wednesday morning. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Local Republicans are not exactly on board with proposed legislation to charge fees to visitors of state parks.

“Parks were acquired by the government for use by the people, and to turn around and charge the people … I have a problem with that,” state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, said.

It is presently illegal to charge entrance and parking fees at state parks, but House Bill 2806 would overturn that law.

The legislation, introduced by five Republicans representing different areas of the state, would impose the fees to specific parks in order to provide for their maintenance, operation or administration.

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, was adamant in his opposition to the measure.

“I am non-supportive of it no matter what the details are,” he said.

Everett said heavy use of many parks, including visitors from out-of-state during COVID-19, is perhaps what’s driving the legislation.

“Normally, we are encouraging people to visit Pennsylvania and enjoy our state parks,” he said.

Everett noted that parks already charge user fees for different services such as boat rentals and other recreational offerings.

Wheeland wondered if the fees would simply be reduced or eliminated once the coronavirus pandemic ends.

“The answer is no,” he said.

State Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro, didn’t say whether he could support or oppose the legislation.

“I don’t really like the idea,” he said. “It would be interesting to hear from DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) to know if there is a need for it. I haven’t heard DCNR come to us and say they need the money. We need to look at all the options.”

Owlett said parks do need to be maintained and kept up-to-date.

He said he sees no real problems with the parks in his own legislative district which include Hills Creek and Leonard Harrison State Parks.

“We want people to use them. They are great,” he said.

Public surveys done in connection with a new strategic plan for state parks last year found most people opposed to entrance fees.

Critics of the bill have noted the difficulties of enacting and enforcing fees since many state parks have numerous entrances, and the staff needed to ensure visitors pay the fees could lead to an added financial burden on the parks.

The PA Environmental Council reported trail use in March and April spiked by as much as 200 percent in many areas of the state, all due to the pandemic.

DCNR reportedly issued for the first time overcrowding alerts for parks because of what it called the “extraordinary” numbers of people using those areas.

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