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Black River, photo by Dwight Hiscano

Highlands Highlights: Are Our State's Parks and Trails at Risk of Being Loved to Death?

NJ HILLS MEDIA // August 1, 2022

If the last two years have conclusively shown us anything, it’s that people rely on the outdoors to refresh and recharge when times are tough. In the most densely populated state in the nation, our state parks play a vital role in providing quiet respites from the stresses of our daily lives through access to hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and more. The need for these outdoor spaces during a period of increasing social isolation has become more apparent than ever, with parks throughout the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania tri-state area experiencing upwards of 40% increased visitation in 2020-2021 than any previous year.

The amount of people rediscovering our parks is higher than ever, yet across New Jersey funding and staffing in our parks is down significantly, even though the amount of land protected by our parks system has grown. Going by the numbers, New Jersey is home to 51 state parks, run by only 15 park superintendents, with a ratio of one park staff per 36,000 visitors. The number of staff has actually been cut 28% since 2006, despite a 13% increase in land managed by the park system.

Of all state park staff, most are seasonally employed during the busy summer season and laid off during the fall creating a revolving door of employees with no incentive to remain in the service. For historians and naturalists, the situation is even more bleak, with fewer than ten full-time staff throughout the state’s visitor centers and park offices.

To the average visitor, the lack of staffing and funding translates to more facilities and services being closed each year due to degradation caused by a $400 million maintenance backlog across the state. Bathrooms and water fountains are out of service, visitor centers and picnic areas remain closed, and trails become treacherous due to overuse, storm damage, and outdated designs that were never meant to sustain the combined use of 17 million annual visitors.

Of special concern in New Jersey and neighboring states is the degradation caused by invasive species. The Spotted Lanternfly is the latest threat on a long list of non-native species introduced to new Jersey that is contributing to the collapse of our native ecosystems. With insufficient staffing to address even general maintenance, the Division of Parks has no resources to address the out-of-control spread of species that are permanently changing our ecosystems for the worse.

The problems with New Jersey’s state parks are not unique: across the nation, our state and national parks are experiencing deficits in staff and funding, with long backlogs of maintenance and improvements which are ever-worsening with population growth and awareness of our amazing places through social media. New Jersey is unique in that our residents live in and among our parks, with a large body of volunteers and organizations who are eager to learn and give back, but without knowing how to do so. To fix its parks, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection must take an active role in connecting people with volunteer opportunities by partnering with other organizations. Increasing public outreach and providing pathways for direct action can give the DEP the resources it needs to cut down on its maintenance backlog, provide safer, more sustainable access to open spaces, and promote ethical means of recreation that leave no trace and sustains our parks and us for generations to come.

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