Tree nursery, parks feeling state budget cuts
By: PAUL POST , The Saratogian
David Lee, supervisor at the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Saratoga Tree Nursery on Route 50, examines 3-year-old red oak trees grown from acorns at the site. (ED BURKE/The Saratogian)
SARATOGA SPRINGS - The head of state-owned Saratoga Tree Nursery is concerned that his facility could fall victim to the budget chopping block.
With 10 full-time and nearly two dozen seasonal workers, the nursery distributes 1.5 million seedlings per year to private land owners for use in valuable projects such as erosion control, reforestation, wildlife habitat restoration and buffering agricultural lands from nearby water sources.
Founded in 1911, the 200-acre site is the last remaining state-owned operation of its kind, down from the half-dozen or so that previously served various parts of New York. Recently, the cash-strapped state cut the nursery's non-personnel budget by 14 percent ($30,000) that will make it difficult to collect seeds needed for growing new trees and shrubs.
"I have a concern that they might take a look at the program and decide that we are no longer needed, which would be a loss to New York residents as far as having a source to obtain low-cost seedlings," Supervising Forester David Lee said.
Autumn is normally a time for collecting and sewing some plant and tree seeds in the ground. Nursery employees collect seeds on their own, but also rely on a statewide network of people who, in the past, have been reimbursed for turning in seed-bearing cones and fruit.
"We've been forced to cut back due to budget cuts," Lee said. "Some species (red pine, red oak) we might have to eliminate if we're not able to obtain the needed amount of seed ourselves. The amount we're going to be able to plant is going to be a lot less."
In addition to providing seedlings to residents at cost, the nursery also has an extensive school program.
Classroom groups are allowed to get 50 free seedlings that may be planted on school grounds or used in some other type of educational program determined by their teacher.
State forest rangers, whose headquarters are at the tree nursery, are also feeling budget cut impacts. No staff reductions are anticipated, but equipment and supply purchases are being kept to a minimum. "We are cutting back on training, meetings, conferences, which will translate into less overtime being used and a savings in mileage," said Lori O'Connell, a state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman.
Elsewhere, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has sent seasonal workers home early and is cutting back on some facilities and services.
"We had to cut the season short for several of our employees who would normally work till the end of November, office staff and grounds people," Saratoga Spa State Park Manager Mike Greenslade said.
Saratoga-Capital Region Director Alane Chinian said that seasonal layoffs have occurred across the board, throughout the area. Also, the state has imposed a hiring freeze meaning that retiring employees aren't being replaced.
Chinian said that her region has been directed to reduce spending $250,000 before the start of the state's next fiscal year on April 1. Some equipment purchases have been delayed to help meet that goal.
However, Chinian said she's extremely concerned about the cost of this winter's heating costs, even though the park took a number of energy conservation measures, installing new boilers.
The parks department has already decided not to keep Schodack Island State Park in Castleton open this winter. The gate will be closed and an access road won't be plowed, meaning that hunters and cross-country skiers will have to park elsewhere and hike in.
Two campgrounds in Rensselaer and Schoharie counties have closed early, too.