If House Bill 2013 passes, Pennsylvania state parks like Benjamin Rush State Park in Philly could get water slides, resorts or other commercial developments.

When state Rep. Brian Ellis looks at some of Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks, he sees the need for better lodging options and restaurants. Maybe horseback trails. Maybe, even, a golf course or a water slide.

What we’re seeing is outdoors people who want to camp out and then others who want to look out of a window, take a shower and have a hot meal,” said Ellis, a Republican who represents part of Butler County in Western Pennsylvania.  “[We want to] supply opportunities for them as well.”

His idea is to give the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources greater ability to partner with private developers who could introduce new attractions to state land. Ellis hopes these deals would bring more visitors and money to state parks. The proposed legislation, House Bill 2013, would lead to the hiring of a consultant and a pilot program for the DCNR to determine possibilities for partnerships. It passed the Rules Committee earlier this week with unanimous support.  

But where Ellis and others see progress, conservation groups see something else entirely: Potentially harmful commercialization of Pennsylvania’s natural resources.  

It creates an incentive for the folks caring for our parks instead of trying to maintain and preserve them to look at them as profit centers,” said Josh McNeil, executive director of the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. “There are any number of things it could become.”

Water slides and golf courses are very real possibilities. In fact, recently introduced House Bill 2188 calls for the creation of four Arnold Palmer Trails Program golf courses in four to-be-determined state parks in the north, south, east and west regions of the state. No votes have been taken yet on that bill.

Ohio, West Virginia, New York and many other states have allowed extensive public-private agreements for years. West Virginia, for instance, developed a state park resort and has several golf courses at its state parks.

Numerous resorts and other developments have been built adjacent to national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Joanne Kilgour, chapter director of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, said her organization isn’t against responsible developments near the parks but worries whether House Bill 2013 could lead to ecological problems and little or no financial benefit.  

“In the long run we see this as opening up the potential for subsidizing private profits using public land,” Kilgour said. “That could be things like golf courses in state parks, and water parks and large resorts that are more like motel or hotel style rather than cabins and camping options. Ultimately I think we want to see park for the public and not private profit.”

They’re afraid of change,” Ellis said of conservation groups’ opposition to the bill. “They are only thinking of the folks now that use the state parks and aren’t interested in getting more folks to see the wonderful natural treasures we have now in Pennsylvania. It’s patently false scare tactics they’re using.”

In 2013, Pennsylvania national parks received some 37.5 million visits. That number has remained mostly steady for the last decade. As to whether the state could make money from partnerships, Ellis said, “We’re not going to give them the land for free.” 

Attempts to foster more private-public partnerships with the state parks have gone on for several years. The reason why this bill could reach the finish line is the bill’s language and Gov.Tom Wolf.

Rather than mandate development, this is a pilot program. As for Wolf, it appears his thinking is different than former Gov. Ed Rendell, who opposed similar measures. Ellis said Wolf has a “willingness to look at opportunities to enhance state parks.” The Governor has worked with Ellis on the bill’s language.  

The administration is committed to ensuring that any new development in the state parks is in keeping with DCNR’s mission and planning for the park system,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said via email. “We have worked with the bill’s sponsor to craft language which will help DCNR identify and evaluate opportunities which may exist to establish additional recreational and lodging facilities in keeping with that mission, and for the benefit of the general public.”  

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...