DEP Closes Some Wildlife Mgt. Areas- Slippery Slope to Privatization

DEP Closes Some Wildlife Management Areas- Slippery Slope to Privatization

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice restricting access at some Wildlife Management Areas in New Jersey. Due to temporary state-mandated employee furloughs, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish & Wildlife is temporarily restricting access to some Wildlife Management Areas throughout the month of July. The NJ Outdoor Alliance issued a statement disagreeing with the decision, stating furloughs and closures makes no sense from a budgetary standpoint.

“We rarely agree with NJ Outdoors Alliance but they’re right, Governor Murphy should not be closing public places because of budget cuts. If New Jersey starts to close wildlife management areas, forests are next and then parks. We have seen these games before and this is something we have fought against. We are concerned that the budget cuts will lead to privatization and leasing out public land to corporations to run and build on,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “New Jersey’s Wildlife Management Areas should remain open. Furloughing staff and closing these public areas is a slippery slope to privatization.”

The slipped in privatization language in the budget that was recently signed has raised major opposition from the public, environmental groups, and even legislators. The budget has language that lets the DEP issue solicitations to engage the private for-profit and non-profit sector in reducing backlogs for state parks through leaseholds.

“These lands are purchased and held in the public trust for people to enjoy. It’s not just about hunting and fishing, many people hike and bird watch in these wildlife areas, our forests, and our parks. These lands belong to all of us. That is why New Jersey needs to fully fund our parks, but that funding has consistently been taken away. Budget cuts for DEP staff and our parks is an excuse to privatize and give away New Jersey’s treasured assets to private companies. This is déjà vu all over again with the Corzine and Christie Administration,” said Tittel. “More than 17 million people visit our parks annually. While the number of visitors to our parks and forests goes up every year, we are seeing massive cuts to the funds that keep those parks open. The Senate Budget bill will raid $9.6 million from the parks budget even though DEP hardly has enough resources to keep our parks open. State parks are falling apart, but we have $500 million in backlogs.”

Governor Murphy’s effort to privatize our state parks started to gain momentum last year as the administration evaluated how public assets could generate more revenue for the state’s pension system. New Jersey residents have for many years been willing to devote substantial resources to land preservation despite living in a high-tax state because they have recognized the importance of saving our open spaces. Taxpayers have invested heavily in our future for nearly 60 years, since the beginning of Green Acres, which has been one of the state’s most successful programs.

“We are concerned that closing New Jersey Wildlife Management Areas will trigger a domino effect in Murphy’s effort to privatize our state parks. Governor Murphy has already been looking at parks and open spaces as assets to fix the state’s pension. These monetization schemes are nothing new for the state although public outrage has derailed several past attempts. Gov. Corzine’s monetization plan is very similar to Murphy’s privatization plan. Corzine made a big privatization push more than a decade ago, threatening to use state assets like the New Jersey Turnpike to pay down debt. His plan to close nine parks drew hundreds of protesters to the Statehouse steps. Gov. Christie constantly worked to privatize at least portions of public land with the goal of making parks more self-sufficient,” said Tittel.

New Jersey residents and several environmental groups have called on Governor Murphy to prevent solicitations of their state parks, forests, and open spaces. Even though Murphy signed the budget without line-item vetoing the privatization language, there are several actions he can make. He can write a statement or Executive Order suspending the implementation of the budget language. That EO can also have specific language protecting Liberty State Park from a golf course or any commercialization until the Liberty State Park Protection Act is passed. Murphy can also ask the legislature to change the budget language or have it removed before October when the final budget is voted on.

“If Murphy wants to follow his predecessor’s privatization schemes, then he will endure major opposition from the public and environmental groups like so in the past. These areas are owned by the public, for the public and entrusted with our government. This is our heritage, our legacy, and we cannot sacrifice that because of financial problems,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Sierra Club for more than 125 years has fought to preserve public lands for the public. That is what we stand for, and what we will continue to fight for against threats that will continue no matter who the governor is. Our parks are for everyone. Too many people have fought too hard for too long to save our open spaces to lose them now to profiteers.”

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