Comments by Commissioner Carol Ash
FY2008-09 Parks Capital Funding Budget Hearing:New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
October 30, 2007
Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the challenges and opportunitiesfacing New York’s State Parks.I am joined this morning by Andy Beers, our Executive Deputy Commissioner, PeteFinn, our Deputy Commissioner for Finance and Administration, and other members of ourExecutive Team.
The State Park system – is made up of 178 Parks and 35 Historic Sites. Our system of325,000 acres of lands and waters – is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation. Ourfacilities host more than 55 million visitors annually. Among the fifty states, we rank first inthe number of operating facilities, and, when campgrounds operated by DEC are includedwith ours, first in the total number of campsites. We are fifth in total acreage and third in totalannual visitation.Niagara Falls State Park’s annual attendance of 7.8 million visitors is greater than thatof Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined. And more than six million peoplevisit Jones Beach each year—twice the number that visit Yellowstone. Niagara Falls,established in 1885, is the oldest state park in the nation, and Washington’s Headquarters,established in 1850, is the first publicly-owned state historic site. The Bethpage Black wasthe first publicly-owned golf course to host the U.S. Open Golf Championship in 2002. The109th United States Open Championship will return there in 2009.New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic PreservationNelson A. Rockefeller Empire State PlazaAgency Building 1Albany, NY 12238518 474-0443
2New York’s State Parks huge inventory of public recreational facilities include 5,000buildings, 29 golf courses, 53 swimming pools, 76 beaches, 27 marinas, 40 boat launchingsites, 18 nature centers, 817 cabins, 8,355 campsites, more than 1,350 miles of trails, 106dams, 640 bridges, hundreds of miles of roads, and dozens of historic structures listed on theState and National Registers of Historic Places. Over the last twelve years, the State Parkssystem expanded by more than 25%, adding 66,000 acres and 26 new parks.Since my confirmation as Commissioner in May, I’ve toured all eleven park regions,visiting more than 100 of our Parks and Historic Sites. A major theme has emerged fromthese visits: our State Parks face huge capital investment needs. Simply stated, the StateParks system is suffering from decades of underinvestment, with the result that ourrecreational facilities and infrastructure are in dire need of rehabilitation and replacement.Many parks have significant health and safety concerns that require immediate attention. Ourpark buildings and infrastructure are aging and deteriorating, diminishing the outdoorexperience for those 55 million people who come to our parks every year. Furthermore, manyof the agency’s newest acquisitions lack basic amenities and recreational facilities that wouldallow the public to enjoy these new parks.Last fall, a statewide parks advocacy group, Parks and Trails New York, issued anindependent report entitled “Parks at a Turning Point: Restoring and Enhancing New York’sState Park System.” This report recognized New York’s magnificent parks and historic sites,but highlighted urgent funding needs for the agency, both on the capital side and theoperational side. The Parks and Trails report made several recommendations, most notablycalling for a major new capital investment initiative. Since the release of that report,Newsday, the Albany Times Union, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the SchenectadyGazette, the Watertown Times, and other publications have joined in calling for therevitalization of the State Parks.As the new Parks Commissioner, my first priority has been to gain a comprehensiveunderstanding of the size and scope of the agency’s capital needs. Last February, I initiated a3statewide review, gathering detailed information on the most pressing capital improvementneeds across our 213 State Parks and Historic Sites. To date this assessment has identifiedmore than 750 urgent critical capital projects with a total cost in the range of $600 to$650 million. OPRHP’s capital needs fall into four categories:1. Health and Safety Projects. The State Parks face a number of health and safetyissues. We have outdated drinking water systems that need to be replaced. We haveaging sewage treatment systems that have exceeded their useful life. We have damson the state’s “high hazard” list that do not meet modern dam safety standards, andbridges that have been flagged as potential hazards. We have failing electricalsystems and underground petroleum storage tanks that must be removed. And wehave landfills that, although inactive for many years, were never closed to DECstandards.2. Rehabilitation of Existing Facilities. This category is by far the largest, comprisingapproximately 65% of OPHRP’s total identified capital needs. It encompasses capitalrehabilitation of existing infrastructure in the Parks and Historic Sites – replacingfacilities that have long exceeded their practical and operational effectiveness and arein various stages of disrepair, including roofs, heating and plumbing systems, contactstations, campgrounds, boat launches, picnic shelters, recreation fields, pools,swimming areas, visitor centers, bathrooms, roads, parking areas, hiking trails, andmaintenance centers. It also includes a significant backlog of repair and maintenanceneeds for historic buildings and structures at our Historic Sites, as well as energyefficiencyinvestments in aging buildings.3. New Facilities Development. This category captures capital investments needed todevelop new facilities – primarily public use amenities at the 26 new State Parks.Many of these new parks consist of a sign, a car pull-off, and little else. Investmentsare needed to create entrance areas, parking areas, restrooms, trail systems, and picnicand swimming areas, to make these new acquisitions available to the public.44. Natural Resource Stewardship. The State Parks’ natural resources – plants, wildlife,and ecosystems – face varied threats, such as pollution of lakes and rivers, impairedwetlands, invasive species, soil erosion, global warming, and sea level rise. We haveidentified a number of park-specific projects to restore habitats and ecosystems neededto assure that natural resources in the State Parks remain “unimpaired for futuregenerations.”In addition, two separate areas in which we are involved require significant capitalinvestments. One is the need to continue the development of the major waterfront parks inNew York City. These projects, which are partnerships between New York State and the Cityof New York, include the Hudson River Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Governor’sIsland. Secondly, the capital needs described above do not include investments needed tomaintain state campgrounds and recreational facilities in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks,which are under the jurisdiction of our sister agency, the Department of EnvironmentalConservation led by Commissioner Pete Grannis.Certainly, over the past decade some capital improvements have been made in some ofour parks and historic sites. New visitor centers have been built, bathhouses have beenrehabilitated, utilities have been upgraded, water systems have been replaced. But clearly theagency has not had sufficient resources to meet the need.In my travels across the state, I’ve seen many sobering things. I’ve seen bathroomsthat don’t work and shower buildings I’d be embarrassed to take my family to. I’ve seenleaking roofs, crumbling foundations, and worn out facilities. I’ve seen a 52-year oldswimming pool that we had to close and demolish because it was leaking 30,000 gallons ofpotable water a day. I’ve seen basketball courts made unusable by cracked asphalt, rustedbackboards, and bent rims. I’ve seen water spigots in our campgrounds marked with signsreading “do not drink this water or use it to wash dishes.” I’ve seen badly eroded hiking trailsand woodlands and marshes choked with invasive plants. I’ve seen asbestos tiles andinsulation that must be removed from public spaces. I’ve seen the remains of historicallysignificantbuildings that were demolished due to a lack of maintenance funds. I’ve seen5paved parking lots that have deteriorated to the point where we actually have to mow them, toprevent grass and weeds from igniting visitors’ cars into flame. And I’ve seen cabins, that wecharge the public a fee to use, that are literally held together with duct tape and spray-foamfrom a can.Let me emphasize that these findings are not a criticism of State Parks staff. To thecontrary, we are fortunate to have a highly dedicated, hard-working staff of 2,240 men andwomen – many of whom have dedicated their careers to the State Parks system. Within theresources provided to the agency, staff has done an admirable job of keeping our facilitiesopen and available to the public. Our State Parks and Historic Sites remain beautiful places –accessible and affordable to all New Yorkers who want to enjoy nature, take a hike, pitch atent, have a picnic, throw around a baseball, or learn about our history and environment.But while the challenges facing the State Parks and Historic Sites systems have grown,our capital budget has not. Over the past 15 years, the size of our system expanded from 184sites in 1992, to 213 today – an increase of 29 new facilities. The lands and waters under ourstewardship went from 257,000 acres in 1992 to 326,000 acres today – an increase of 27%.But over this same period, our capital budget was cut. Our actual capital expendituresin 1992 were $60 million. This year, our capital expenditures from all sources will be $40million. Adjusted for inflation, our capital budget today buys 50% less than it did in 1992.Let me reiterate this. Over the past 15 years the State Parks system expanded by 27%,including 29 new parks, and yet our capital budget, adjusted for inflation, has been reduced byhalf. The impact on the ground is obvious– we have underinvested in our State Parks andHistoric Sites, and they are showing it.Fortunately, OPRHP’s current year budget, proposed last April by Governor Spitzerand enacted by the Legislature, was an important first step in reversing this trend. The budgetrestored 52 of the 250 staff positions lost for facility maintenance, park operations, and6natural resource stewardship, and increased the agency’s capital budget by approximately $5million. These increases are greatly appreciated.However, even with this year’s increase, the agency’s total available capital fundingthis year – including state funds, federal support, mitigation funds, and private contributions –is approximately $40 million. Measured against the size of the need – a backlog of some$650 million in urgent capital needs – $40 million cannot begin to reverse the decline facingour State Parks and Historic Sites. Therefore, I intend to work with the Governor, ExecutiveChamber staff, the Division of Budget, and the Legislature to develop a comprehensive planto revitalize New York’s State Parks and Historic Sites. Key elements should include:• A multi-year plan is needed to address the large backlog of capital projects facing ourparks. This problem developed over several decades. It will require a sustained effortto solve, with a multi-year, dependable commitment of funds.• The federal government must be a partner in this effort. Federal funding for StateParks projects has all but disappeared. This year, New York State’s allocation fromthe primary source of federal parks funding – the Land & Water Conservation Fund –is only $2 million. We must work closely with our Congressional delegation toincrease funds allocated to New York from the LWCF and other federal programs.• While New York State will be the primary source of capital funds, we should alsoincrease our efforts to raise private contributions – from private individuals,foundations, Friends Groups, and the corporate world. New York’s State Parks andHistoric Sites have benefitted from more than a century of private philanthropicsupport. We need to continue this legacy.I am fully aware of the difficult financial climate facing New York State.Nonetheless, I believe a major initiative to restore our Parks is a sound economic investmentfor New York State. Parks can and do make a major contribution to the Governor’s efforts torevitalize local communities across the state. Numerous studies have shown that quality of7life and livable communities are a major driver in attracting and retaining businesses, largeand small.In addition, recreational and heritage tourism is a major component of our state’seconomy, particularly throughout upstate New York. In fact a survey undertaken this pastsummer indicates that nearly eighty percent of park visitors participate in dining, shoppingand recreational activities outside the park during a park visit.And, finally, investment in parks capital projects will create engineering andconstruction-related jobs across the state, many involving small businesses.In closing, I want to underscore that New York has a magnificent State Parks system.The majesty of Niagara Falls, the dramatic cliffs of Bear Mountain, the windswept oceanshoreline at Jones Beach, the deep woods of Allegany State Park, the historic charm ofSaratoga Spa, the sweeping vistas in Letchworth State Park – these are New York’s defininglandscapes.But the fact remains that we haven’t invested sufficient funds to maintain our parks.New Yorkers deserve more – they deserve nothing less than a commitment to return our StateParks to pre-eminence as the finest park system in the nation.Thank you, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.