I live in a town along the beautiful Farmington River, and just about every summer, people drown in it. Sometimes I’m out walking on the rail trail along the river and I see families with children playing in the river currents and I worry that they’ll be next.
So why don’t those people go to state parks, where lifeguards watch the ponds and lakes?
Could it be that they are trying to save money by avoiding the ever-rising parking and camping fees at our state parks? I think so. And now the state is doubling those fees in many cases, as Steven Goode reports in The Hartford Courant.
For many of us, a $14 parking fee ($20 at the ocean beaches) may not seem unreasonable, but for a struggling family it’s that much less to spend on food.
But let’s put the safety issue aside. I think my argument is logical, but I can’t prove that fewer people would drown in unattended rivers and ponds if it didn’t cost so much to get into state parks. Let’s just think about what our government parks, both state and national, are for.
They are the property of the citizens of the state and nation. They already belong to us. How is it right to charge us again for their use? How is it right to raise the parking fees and camping fees so that the very people who most need these parks can’t afford to get in?
I’m talking about the people who don’t have large suburban yards or swimming pools, the people who can’t afford hotels, the people for whom even air conditioning is a luxury. Many of these people work hard for menial wages and live in the sweltering cities, so a day of swimming and picnicking can mean a lot to them. Some of them are retired and live on Social Security, and a week of camping at Hammonasset Beach State Park is their annual splurge.
That’s why doubling these fees is shameful, effectively a regressive tax on our poorest citizens to maintain something that belongs to all of us. Why must we starve our public amenities into becoming some sort of semi-private privilege?
Contrast this attitude with the generosity of beautiful Hawaii, where all beaches are public and there are no parking or entrance fees except at a few designated conservation areas and landmarks. The radical idea that all the citizens — and even out-of-state visitors — have a right to enjoy the bounty of nature is one of the most charming things about those gorgeous islands. Nobody owns the beach, so everyone does.
In a time of economic hardship for so many people, the public parks should be more accessible and affordable, not less. I know that there is an angry anti-tax movement in this country, but I hope some of its adherents might recognize that some things are worth sharing and funding. Maybe if they didn’t get nickeled-and-dimed on top of getting taxed, they’d be a little less angry.
A more courageous legislature than Connecticut has ever seen would support our state parks, well and fully, with tax revenue.