The Express-Times - Use recreation areas or risk losing them


JORBA Board Member/Chapter Leader
Use recreation areas or risk losing them
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The calendar has officially turned from winter to spring. And it won't be long now before balmy weather lures fitness buffs and adventure lovers outdoors to enjoy hiking, biking, camping and other recreational activities.

But some of our parks and recreation spaces aren't ready for the rush. They've fallen on hard times and, in many cases, repair bills are mounting.

Still other sites, from municipal parks used for much-needed summer recreation programs to federal parklands that fill up each summer with tourists, are threatened by proposed budget cuts.

In Pennsylvania, the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center is waiting for $140,000 in state and federal dollars to fix three bridges ravaged by September 2004 floodwaters. Officials say the work won't be completed until October 2008.

In the Garden State, the Sierra Club estimates it will cost $230 million to fix problems that have cropped up throughout the state's park system, where park maintenance has become a low priority in recent years.

Even our national parks are in danger. The president's 2006-07 budget contains a $100 million cut for the national park system. And many counties and local municipalities are slicing parks budgets as they struggle to make ends meet. In Easton, a fiscal crunch prompted city council to close Eddyside pool for the upcoming swimming season, although a local group is working furiously to try to raise the funds needed to open the pool.

When budget challenges arise, it's tempting to shortchange parks and recreation areas.

But that kind of thinking is shortsighted and can lead to bigger budget and other problems.

For instance, delaying maintenance projects in our parks and recreation areas for too long can lead to greater damage and higher repair bills. New Jersey is learning that lesson. The $230 million Sierra Club estimate comes after years of skimping on the state parks maintenance budget.

Closing municipal pools can lead youngsters to choose dangerous alternative swimming sites, such as the Delaware River, or fill idle time with getting into trouble. But in the middle of all this dark news about recreational spaces and budgets comes a breath of fresh air.

Mike Helbing is a Warren County man who spends every Sunday taking 20-mile hikes across this area -- and beyond. He was the focus of a profile story in Sunday's New Jersey edition.

The 25-year-old Helbing -- who learned the value of hiking at age 3 from his grandfather -- encourages others to tag along on his hikes.

He gives two reasons: 1) Hiking is healthy and 2) Wide use of hiking trails will help convince lawmakers and others to preserve more recreational open spaces.

If we don't use hiking trails and other open spaces, it's hard to make a case to lawmakers and others that it's worth securing more open space.

Helbing has a good point -- and a unique way of making it. If we don't use hiking trails and other open spaces, it's harder to argue that it's worth investing taxpayer dollars in preserving land for hiking, biking and other recreational needs.

We should follow Helbing's lead.

We should take full advantage of federal, state, county and local parks, hiking trails, campgrounds, swimming sites and other recreational spaces.

We should use them. We should encourage our friends to use them, too. We should use them to get healthy. We should use them to learn fascinating new tidbits about local history. We should use them to find out more about nature.

We should use them.

And then we should call or write our elected officials to explain why we can't afford to lose them.
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