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How Unelected Bureaucrats Jeopardized Big Elk Creek State Park and Undermined Our Trust in Public Officials.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) manages the state's natural resources. The department has jurisdiction over White Clay Creek Preserve and the newly designated Big Elk Creek State Park, part of a 10,000-acre wildlife area that straddles the Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania state lines. Given the nature of this wilderness area, DCNR’s recent unilateral decision to develop the area into an RV and campsite park is surprising.

 

In fact, the DCNR withheld the plans to develop the site until November 2023 and then presented them as a fait accompli, not subject to stakeholder input, setting off a David and Goliath story in Southeastern PA. Even after being called out on their bad conduct, local stakeholders had difficulty obtaining a promise from the DCNR to allow stakeholder engagement. Governor Shapiro's DCNR likely would have moved forward on their development plans if there had not been a spirited response, highlighting the importance of grass-roots action and the danger of state-sponsored unilateralism.


 

At its core, trusting the government to act responsibly – without citizen input - is misguided. Too often, short-sightedness and corruption are demonstrably present in agency plans, and we, the citizenry, must be watchful and energetic in our response. 

 

Once lost, resources are difficult to recover. Once given, authority is hard to take back.

 

This sordid Big Elk Creek State Park debacle is a case in point:

 

In 2022, then-Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA) unilaterally changed Big Elk Creek from a "preserve" to a "park." This change in designation set the stage for DCNR to develop the land, moving it from a wilderness area to one managed primarily for the benefit of visitors to the park. This change in purpose stands in stark contrast with the purpose for which the land was purchased in the first place. (See Land deal grows Pennsylvania preserve to 3,000 acres - pennlive.com.) That may be why the DCNR hid its development plans for more than eighteen months before springing it on those who would be most affected by the decision.

 

In standing up to the DCNR, local stakeholders extracted a promise to act with the deliberate and careful stakeholder engagement to which all government actions should be subject. This is encouraging, demonstrating that regular citizens need not accept decisions made in back rooms by unelected bureaucrats. It also demonstrates that Pennsylvanians understand that the rights and resources seized by the government cannot quickly be restored.  

 

As a result of these recent events, PA House Bill 1813 has been introduced to prevent state preserves from being turned into parks without legislative oversight. This is not to say that states shouldn’t be able to develop public land; the development of natural resources by state officials is an important part of their job, but it must be transparent and honest, seeking stakeholder engagement.  When, as here, the government demonstrates an inability to act above board, the citizenry must hold them accountable.

 

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