Act Now: Tell Your Representatives Not to Gut the PA Wilds!
** Update – 9/14/2017 ** The biggest raid to the state’s environmental funds in the history of the Commonwealth passed the PA House of Representatives YESTERDAY. At stake: a $317 million withdrawal from funds dedicated to our wild lands and waters, wildlife and the betterment of our communities. This will be a huge hit to the Pennsylvania Wilds as a place and a movement, not to mention to PA as a whole. Debate will now move to the PA Senate. We will provide an update soon.
If you haven’t seen it yet, a plan was unveiled Tuesday to take over $450 million from state environmental funds in order to help balance the state budget.
While we respect efforts to find efficiencies in state government and balance the state budget, the notion that “this proposal will not cost one job, compromise any program or close any agency” as one Representative, from Adams County, has been quoted as saying – is flat-out wrong.
The PA Wilds Center is but one example but I can say without hesitation: This proposal would completely gut our organization, lead to job losses and severely cripple what this year was called “one of the single greatest rural, natural resource-based economic development programs in the United States.”
Many of our communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds are struggling due to declines in industry. Meanwhile, nationally, outdoor recreation has grown into an $887 billion annual industry. A few years back leaders serving our region asked: why don’t we work together – public and private sectors; local, state and federal – to compete for some of this market? Our region had a strong work ethic, a common sense conservation ethic, and more public land than Yellowstone National Park. It made sense.
We rallied. And by that I mean for the last 15 years we’ve practiced daily the difficult task of implementing this idea, of setting aside parochial interests and finding ways to pull in the same direction to get results. To position the Pennsylvania Wilds, despite whatever challenges come our way, as a premier outdoor recreation destination to create jobs, diversify our rural economy, inspire stewardship and improve quality of life.
Ours has not been a perfect union but it is working and we are proud of it. Over the last six years, EVERY COUNTY in the Pennsylvania Wilds has seen increases in visitor spending, in tourism-related jobs and income, and in local, state and federal taxes collected from tourism categories.
None of this would have been possible without investments from the environmental funds that are now proposed for the chopping block.
Four years ago, when it became clear to me and many others that the Wilds experiment was working, I helped found the PA Wilds Center to give the work a more formal organizational home. PA Wilds Center is now the coordinating entity for this young movement, operating all of the Wilds programs and services for communities. We do this in partnership with dozens of public and private sector organizations, businesses and government partners. Our service area is bigger than New Hampshire or Vermont or Massachusetts. It holds 95 percent of the state’s public lands.
Our nonprofit has no dedicated funding. We compete for every dollar we get. This doesn’t always make for a good night’s rest, but I appreciate it because when I put my citizen/taxpayer hat on, I believe it is the best way for tax dollars to be invested – through rigorous competition.
Some of the funds proposed to be raided – retroactively, even – such as the Growing Greener Fund and the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund, are the closest thing the Wilds work has to dedicated funding. They are programs our nonprofit can return to annually to make the case to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for continued strategic investment in the region. We match every dollar we get from these funds with monies from other sources – our own, philanthropic giving from foundations, donations from banks and large manufacturers, other grants, contributed hours from volunteers. Everyone has skin in the game and we live and die by our results to all these stakeholders and the public.
Because we are such a young nonprofit, we rely heavily on these funds to help us build so we can one day be far less dependent on them. Here are a few of the things that would happen if we lost this funding next year or retroactively to grants we currently have open:
We’d have to forfeit all or most of the match dollars lined up against this funding, making this an even more devastating hit, essentially zeroing out our budget. Read the Executive Director of the PA Land Trust Association’s open letter to the General Assembly to learn more on how such grants are managed and the devastating consequences of renege on existing ones.
I’d have to lay off my entire staff — four full-time and five part-time positions. It takes time for a young nonprofit to build the kinds of reserves that can help it weather bad storms, and we aren’t there yet. PA Wilds Center has the most amazing staff – high performers who go above and beyond daily and make every dollar stretch. All of them could command a higher wage in the private sector but choose to work on the Wilds effort because they believe in the difference it is making in their communities. We’d lose this talent, and the magic that goes with such a dedicated, passionate team.
With no staff, we’d have to close our PA Wilds Conservation Shop gift shop physical and online stores, which last year purchased more than $80,000 in inventory from local businesses and small-batch producers in the region for resale to the traveling public (and this year is budgeted to purchase $93,000 in local products inventory). These purchases translate into real work opportunities for residents in the Pennsylvania Wilds. In a place with higher than average unemployment, like we have, they matter. PA Wilds Center’s goal is to build out this new platform over the next decade so it eventually moves $1 million in local product annually. That’s a lot of opportunity for real people that make things in rural PA! And the multiplier effect of investing in so many local businesses is profound. This program would be completely dismantled under the plan unveiled in the state House on Tuesday.
With no staff, we’d have to cease our licensing program, which last year helped local businesses sell almost $60,000 in PA Wilds-branded products – a number that is expected to climb again this year and for the foreseeable future, unless the program is dismantled.
With no staff, we’d have to greatly downsize The Wilds Cooperative of PA, our development program that focuses on growing and connecting place-based businesses in the region, which last year helped local businesses create 44 new jobs and save 81 existing jobs. … Did I mention that our region has a higher than average unemployment rate and poverty rate for children and that the jobs being created through the Wilds work matter? They do!
We’d have to terminate regional marketing, which we just restructured and secured seed funding to reboot after it was dormant for 10 years due to funding cuts. Our plan is to build a sustainable framework around this activity, using profits from the sale of local products at our gift shops to fund it. But if the gift shops are dismantled and we have no staff … goodbye regional marketing, goodbye increased foot traffic to help our rural towns thrive and goodbye to getting more visitors to help us fight invasive species and support our public lands through targeted stewardship campaigns, all of which are on the horizon.
We’d have to eliminate our youth programming in high schools, which is just gearing up and is slated to include everything from paid internships for high school students at our PA Wilds Conservation Shops, to classes offered through our PA Wilds Outdoor Industry Exploration Series, to company models where students learn business and technical skills while tying into our regional brand and platforms such as pawilds.com. This programming is actually supported almost entirely by the private sector, but without any staff, there’s no way we could administer it.
It would kill a program slated to launch this year to build supports around local outfitters and guides operating in the Wilds. These businesses are critical to helping visitors safely and appropriately access our rugged landscape — one of the largest blocks of green between New York City and Chicago, with mountains, forests, abundant wildlife and 16,000 miles of free-flowing waterways. By lifting this sector up on our platforms, such as pawilds.com, and through our networks, we can help offset some of the challenges and volatility they face being so highly seasonal and weather-dependent. When they thrive, so do many businesses around them that benefit from their foot traffic. And so does stewardship. It’s hard to spend a few days in the wilderness with a talented guide and not come away changed for the better.
We’d cease to have the capacity to bring partners together for regional collaboration around the Wilds effort. This is critical to good governance when you hail from a region that covers a quarter of the Commonwealth but only has 4 percent of the state’s population.