New York's state parks an easy target in times of budgetary crisis

Text and photos by Talbot Eckweiler

Part one in a five-part series.

EDITOR’S NOTE: New York again faces a devastating state budget shortfall. Last year, when wrestling with an $8.2 billion budget shortfall, then-Governor David Paterson considered massive cuts to the state park system as one way to close the gap. The impact on the state’s conservation and preservation efforts would have been calamitous. As lawmakers again consider ways to shore up another catastrophically wobbly budget, a look at last year’s controversy can serve as an important reminder about the educational, recreational, and economic value of the park system. At a time when other states are also looking at severe budget crises, this can serve as a cautionary tale for others.

In the spring of 2010, my Facebook newsfeed showed several of my friends had joined a group called “Save New York State Parks.” I followed the link and learned that the New York State government drafted a proposal to shut down parts of the park system. In a press release on the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s website (OPRHP), Governor Paterson explained shutting down the parks was a better alternative to cutting costs in education or healthcare, and that the changes to the parks would be good for the overall well-being of the state.

New York faces an historic fiscal crisis of unprecedented magnitude. It has demanded many difficult but necessary decisions to help ensure the fiscal integrity of our State. The unfortunate reality of closing an $8.2 billion deficit is that there is less money available for many worthy services and programs. (…) Spending cuts, however difficult, are needed in order to put New York on the road to fiscal recovery. Going forward through the budget process, I look forward to a productive dialogue with the Legislature on parks and historic sites, as well as other issues. (Paterson qtd. in OPRHP Press Release, February 19, 2010).

Paterson’s proposed plan included the closure of 44 parks and 14 historic sites and the reduction of services at 23 parks and one historic site.

Immediately, New Yorkers protested. Soon after I learned about the issue, I went to a rally at Quaker Lake. Four hundred people showed up to express their love of the parks and their dislike of the proposed changes.

Senator Cathy Young attended the rally and spoke against the $6.8 million proposed changes. In a statement on her Web site, Young said, “Our parks draw more than a million visitors to our region every year.  They provide an inexpensive recreational resource to families on tight budgets. Closing our parks hurts our economy and quality of life.”

What I saw at Quaker Lake was indicative a movement that spread across the state. Through newspaper editorials, social media, petitions and rallies, New York citizens demonstrated to their legislators that the New York could not afford to close the parks and historic sites.

On May 27, 2010, Governor Paterson announced that the legislature accepted spending reductions to fully fund the state parks. In a press release, Paterson said, “I am pleased that an agreement has been reached to reopen the 55 State parks and historic sites that were closed earlier this month.”

However, in Paterson’s plan to reopen the parks, he re-directed $80 million dollars from the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). Of that $80 million, $74 million went to the general fund. The remaining $6 million went toward reopening the 55 parks and historic sites closed in the aftermath of the February legislation. The plan also includes an increase in environmental violations and fees, which will raise a projected $4 million for the EPF.

In the series of articles that will appear over the next few days, I’ll look at the state’s reaction to the threatened park closures. I speak with friends groups associated with the parks and individuals whose lives and businesses would have been affected by park closures. I also take a look at the nation’s first state park, Niagara Falls, as an example of the social importance of parks. Finally, I attempt to “follow the money” by taking a look at the EPF and how legislation affected organizations dependent on the EPF.