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$1 billion needed to fix infrastructure, pay for maintenance at Pennsylvania state parks, forests | TribLIVE.com
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$1 billion needed to fix infrastructure, pay for maintenance at Pennsylvania state parks, forests

Stephen Huba
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Sarah Friedenberger of Delmont enjoys a day with her 8-month-old daughter, Josie, and son Judah, 3, at Keystone Lake State Park in Derry Township on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
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Bridges such as this one at the Adams Falls picnic area at Linn Run State Park in Cook Township are in need of repairs.
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Bridges such as this one at the Adams Falls picnic area at Linn Run State Park in Cook Township are in need of repairs.

Deferred maintenance on Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests comes with a costly price tag of $1 billion and no clear way to pay for it, according to a new report.

“The Legacy of Pennsylvania Parks and Forests: The Future Is in Our Hands,” a 48-page report from the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, concludes that the state needs a more “reliable and adequate” source of funding for the recreational lands.

The nonprofit foundation, which is not affiliated with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources , tied the funding shortfall to declines in funding from state lawmakers that used to cover daily operating expenses.

Revenue generated by overnight stays in state parks, which used to pay for infrastructure projects, is now diverted to basic operations because of budget shortfalls, the report said. That has created a crisis of deferred maintenance.

“As any homeowner knows, deferring maintenance inevitably leads to higher costs in the long term,” the report said. “If certain projects related to health and safety needs are not fixed in the near term … it may result in facility closings, damage to the facility or impacts to human safety.”

The report called the shortage of maintenance funds an “invisible issue” because it’s not always apparent to the public. DCNR staff keeps the parks running and continues to do more with less.

“Unfortunately, this gives the appearance of a system that can remain viable even with declining appropriation from general revenues,” the report said.

Douglas Finger, manager of Linn Run State Park in Westmoreland County, said he believes the report is accurate.

“It’s a backlog of major maintenance,” said Finger, also manager of Laurel Summit and Laurel Mountain state parks. “What this means is infrastructure that was built back in the 1970s and ’80s and that requires significant maintenance, retrofits and repairs — in many cases, those (projects) have been deferred.”

Linn Run has about $2 million in maintenance projects pending, including underground storage tanks, building renovations and bridge repairs, Finger said.

The report said DCNR’s
$121 million budget — one half of 1 percent of the
$33 billion state budget — is out of proportion to the size and scope of its properties, buildings and infrastructure. The department is responsible for 121 state parks, 20 forest districts, more than 2.5 million acres of land, 131 dams, 3,000 miles of public-use roads, 70 wastewater treatment plants, 860 vehicular bridges, hundreds of lakes and ponds, 7,138 miles of streams and 4,800 buildings, 500 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, the report said.

What’s more, the report noted that past industrial activities, especially coal mining and oil and gas drilling, have put a significant burden on public lands used for recreation. An estimated 30,000 acres of state forest land are affected by past mining, spread across 182 sites, the report said.

“There are 321 unique point sources of abandoned mine drainage emanating from those sites, which contaminates local streams and rivers, typically killing off aquatic life,” the report said.

To remediate all affected state forest lands would cost at least $275 million, the report said. To plug and remediate all 600 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells on state property would cost $20 million, the report said.

DCNR spokesman Terry Brady said the state is grateful for the report, calling the foundation a “strong and loyal ally of the state park and forest system.”

“Many of these items are indeed not new,” Brady said. “Maintenance is fine when we have sunny days and blue skies, but when you have torrential rains, it’s an unending situation where a lot of maintenance is going into cleanup and storm damage.

“When you start looking at those major ticket items … it would be nice to move ahead to take care of these things.”

The eight state parks within the Laurel Highlands, including Ohiopyle, continue to be a major tourism draw despite the declines in funding, said Ann Nemanic, executive director of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. Volunteerism in the form of “friends” groups has helped some in making up the difference.

“These volunteers offer true support in various aspects, including fundraising. They are a lifeline for our parks to continue to be an integral part of the tourism product for our region,” Nemanic said.

Foundation spokeswoman Marci Mowery said the report offers no specific proposal for funding alternatives but encourages people to “be in conversation” with elected officials about the issue.

Mowery noted that Pennsylvania is fifth in the nation for outdoor recreational spending. “We’re not investing in something that has a high rate of return,” she said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.