Parks feel budget’s bite

Planned cutbacks could grow if one-shot funds don’t arrive

GREENPORT–To save money in the proposed 2010-11 state budget, 41 state parks and 14 historic sites throughout the state are slated for closure, while 23 parks and 1 historic site face service cutbacks.

The closures and cutbacks are an attempt to remedy an $8.2 billion budget deficit, but any savings the state may realize will likely come at the expense of the local economy, some say of the proposal.

Locally, the home of Hudson River School Artist Frederic Church at the Olana State Historic Site will be closed to the public two days a week, but the 250-acre grounds will remain open, if the proposal is adopted.

Schodack Island State Park in Rensselaer County would have to close, and the pond area at the Taconic State Park at Rudd Pond, Dutchess County, also would close.

According to Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), which submitted the closure/cutback plan, $5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund  will pay for the full operation of 33 parks and historic sites and prevent service cuts at 19 others.

Without money from the environmental fund and an anticipated $4 million in revenue from park and historic site fee increases to be identified later, the Clermont State Historic Site, which includes 500 acres and the home of Livingston family, will be closed. The swimming season at the Lake Taghkanic State Park would also be reduced.

The loss of money from the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) and fee-hike money in Dutchess County will mean that the Staatsburgh State Historic Site and the Walkway Over the Hudson will close and in Rensselaer County, the Cherry Plain State Park, Crailo State Historic Site and Grafton Lakes State Park will all be shut down.

To operate parks and historic sites using EPF funding, which is usually reserved for capital projects, will require legislative approval, said Mr. Keefe.

“The unfortunate reality of closing an $8.2 billion deficit is that there is less money available for many worthy services and programs… when we have to cut funding to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and social services, no area of state spending, including parks and historic sites could be exempt from reductions,” Governor David Paterson said in a statement about the state’s fiscal crisis issued last month.

Sara Johns Griffen, president of the Olana Partnership, the non-profit support arm of the historic site, told The Columbia Paper March 2 that “it is a testament to Olana’s popularity and draw nationwide that it is not slated for closure.”

The partnership has worked to broaden Olana’s exposure and attract a wider audience by offering educational opportunities and opening a new gallery. The cutback “flies in the face of all we are trying to do to make Olana exceptional,” said Ms. Griffen adding she cannot understand the economics of the plan or how it will save the state money.

House tours at Olana are currently offered six days a week and under the planned cutback, will only be offered five days, leaving the house closed two days a week, said Ms. Griffen, who figures the state will therefore not have to pay a couple of tour guides for the extra day the house is closed.

Estimating that each guide may make $10 hour and $80 for an 8-hour day, she calculates the state’s savings at $160 for the extra day the house is closed. But, she points out that only 20 people a day would have to each buy a $9 ticket for the house tour for the state to break even and the rest is profit. “It is unclear to us how [the state] thinks it is going to save money,” she said.

Once the state closes some historic sites on the tourist circuit, as will be the case in Staatsburg and Clermont if the extra funding is not approved, tourists coming from New York City and surrounding areas, from which Olana attracts many visitors, will be less likely to make the trip north, she said.

‘It’s bigger than whether we’re closed for one or two days. It’s not just the loss of direct revenue,” said Ms. Griffen. Referring to a study commissioned by the partnership last fall, she said, 170,000 people visit Olana every year generating a $7.9 million impact on the local economy–spending money at gas stations, bed and breakfasts, restaurants–“a whole nexus” of businesses will feel the impact.

The state park/historic site closure/cutback plan is not just political posturing, according to state Senator Steve Saland (R-41st), “Regretably, I think it’s real. It’s an unfortunate reality that anything and everything is on the table.”

Acknowledging the state’s “enormous deficit,” Senator Saland said the state is relying on $1 billion in federal stimulus money “which has yet to be acted upon in Washington” to help deal with the deficit. If that money doesn’t materialize the deficit will loom that much larger.

The loss of access to state parks and “so many lovely, marvelous historic sites in the Hudson Valley” will be “a quality of life issue” for many who opt for “staycations” during the current economy, said Mr. Saland.

Calling the state budget “an extraordinary balancing act” on which legislators “have not yet really engaged,” the senator noted that no conference committees have been called on budget issues that are supposed to be resolved by the end of the month.

“These are very challenging times, which to some extent were made even more predictable by last year’s budget which carried an $11.5 billion increase in spending and an $8.5 billion rise in taxes,” he said, noting “this level of spending is not sustainable.”

The senator said he hopes some of the park and historic site closures can be changed to cutbacks. “It’s important to keep parks open,” he said.

Assemblyman Tim Gordon (I-108th) opposes the governor’s proposal to close several state parks as a way to close the budget gap. In a release from his office he said that the parks in the Capital Region are responsible for nearly 3,000 jobs and contribute $250 million into the local economy each year.

“In these difficult economic times, any industry that pumps money into our region and provides jobs for our community is essential,” he said.

One of several local parks slated for closure–Schodack Island State Park just north of the Columbia County line–provides hiking, fishing, boating, cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing. It also houses a bird conservation area that is home to the no-longer-endangered bald eagle and to blue herons. The park adds environmental, communal and economic value to the region, according to Mr. Gordon.

This isn’t the first time the Schodack Island State Park has been targeted for closure. In the fall of 2008, Mr. Gordon was part of a successful campaign to reopen the park during the winter months after the state closed it in an effort to save money. That effort involved the town and local residents volunteering to assist the state in monitoring the park during the winter months.

The assemblyman, whose district includes the northern tier of towns in Columbia County, said he is confident residents are once again willing to form volunteer groups to help keep the park open. He said it is imperative that the state park remain open for the Capital Region’s economy, for the environment and for the benefit of local families.

He acknowledged in the release that lawmakers will have to make tough decisions to address the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit, but he said that closing state parks is the wrong way to accomplish that goal.

In an email, Ms. Griffen said, “there is a significant hue and cry emerging.” A Facebook site: 1 million people want NYS parks to remain open! had been joined by 8,000 people as of last Tuesday and one week later had 77,000 members.

She said Wednesday, March 3 is Parks Day in Albany and she and members of the partnership would meet with legislators and participate in a rally to prevent closure of the parks.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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