Thursday, October 01, 2009

Saratoga Spa State Park needs more respect and money from its elected representatives.

N.Y., reinvest in state parks


First published: Thursday, October 1, 2009

Filmmaker Ken Burns' six-part series on the national parks airing this week on PBS is bringing lots of attention to America's "best idea" -- its national park system. However, here in New York, we also have a very special park system.
New York's state parks are its crown jewels -- from the seascape at Montauk to the thunder of Niagara, from the forests of Allegany to the explorer's paradise of the Thousand Islands, from the awe-inspiring canyon at Letchworth to the stately grounds of Saratoga Spa. Our system of state parks is also the nation's oldest, dating to the creation of the Niagara Reservation in 1885.

Consisting of 213 parks and historic sites covering 325,000 acres, our state parks preserve priceless landscapes and ecosystems which together add up to an invaluable collection of natural and recreational resources.

A recent Parks & Trails New York study of the economic impact of the state park system found that state parks annually return to the state more than $5 for every $1 invested -- totaling nearly $2 billion in economic benefits.

Another great thing about our state parks: They're close to home. Unlike Yosemite and Yellowstone, state parks are no more than an hour or two from most New Yorkers. In a typical year, more than 55 million people visit our state parks, seeking to reconnect with nature and enjoy the great outdoors.

Despite their myriad benefits, state parks are in jeopardy. They are suffering from decades of underinvestment. Today, the backlog of unmet maintenance and infrastructure needs -- repairs to crumbling buildings, bridges, roads, swimming pools, and water and electrical systems -- is conservatively estimated at $650 million. Unfortunately, state parks were left out of the federal stimulus equation.

The situation on the operating side is just as dire. Since the spring of 2008, state parks operations have suffered a 20 percent budget cut and a reduction in overall staffing levels of 850. For an agency that was lean to begin with, this has meant fewer programs, less maintenance and reduced hours at 100 parks. Any further cuts will lead to more service and program reductions and, inevitably, the closing of some parks. Because of the expense of bringing a closed park back online, the expectation is that any park that closes will remain closed for three to five years, and maybe permanently.

The annual parks budget is less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total state budget. Surely, we can do better by our parks.

In these challenging economic times, it seems that maintaining, or even extending, the services provided by our state parks would be a sound investment in our quality of life and the state and local economies. Our state parks should be given the resources needed to provide the level of services New Yorkers need and have come to expect.

So we invite residents of the Capital Region to visit Thacher, Saratoga Spa, Grafton or Moreau Lake State Park this fall. Then use this experience to urge Gov. David Paterson and the Legislature to reinvest in our state parks -- to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunity to experience the beauty and benefits of these crown jewels.

Robin Dropkin is executive director of Parks & Trails New York.

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