Our state parks need a better plan for survival than the careening crisis management the Paterson administration gave us this year.
Never again should we have to wonder from one week to the next whether Thacher Park will open for the season, or Grafton, or any of the other 176 parks in the state system. Of all the fallout we experienced from the draconian cuts to state agencies this year, none was felt more personally by the public than the threat to the parks. The scream of horror and anger was loud enough for even the politically tone-deaf Paterson group to get the message.
So we dodged the bullet. But how often can we expect a similar result? My guess is with a new administration facing overwhelming demand for continually decreasing state revenues, that would be zero. As bad as funding for many state services proved to be this year, it's only going to be worse next year, and the year after that.
Yet, there are two encouraging signs for park advocates.
The first is to be found in Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo's mostly vague policy book on the environment. He clearly recognizes that parks, particularly upstate and on Long Island, are mini economic engines spread out across our geography, generating, according to advocates, $5 for every $1 invested. And they are recreational destinations that carry local identification and pride. Cuomo pledges he "will work to ensure that they (parks) stay open for the benefit of all New Yorkers." His support matters.
In the same policy book, he says we need something new: innovative public-private partnerships to bring in more money to offset dwindling state revenues. He mentions a Brooklyn fundraising alliance as a model.
As if answering the call last week, enter the perfectly timed Alliance for New York State Parks, under the considerable auspices of the Open Space Institute, to advocate for state parks and historic places, and raise funds for them.
The deep-pocketed Open Space Institute is a nonprofit that already has bought and protected largely for public use 100,000 acres in New York, including 75,000 currently in parklands.
It has ties to a phenomenal donor base. At the announcement of the alliance formation at OSI's New York City office, for instance, members of the Rockefeller, Harriman and Roosevelt families were on hand to express support. The alliance raised $2 million in the first week against the $10 million it wants to get started.
Carol Ash, the vibrant and hugely capable recently departed commissioner of the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Places, will be deeply involved over the next year, although a former deputy parks commissioner, Erik Kulleseid, will be the alliance's director.
No one knows better than Ash how badly mangled the finances and operations of our state parks system have become over the last couple of years. Deep cuts in money and manpower, coupled with repeatedly deferred maintenance, have taken an awful toll. Ash says flatly that our parks system is in jeopardy.
An alliance like this is obviously a blessing and a source of badly needed optimism. But in no way is it the definitive answer. The amount of money that would have to be raised year after year can't depend on the largesse of big donors, or on donations through a mass appeal.
Our parks need a dedicated revenue fund, or at least that is the view of Ash and OSI director Joe Martens. The alliance will advocate for creation of such a fund.
I am assured that the details and limits of a dedicated fund are a work in progress. Because there are obvious warning flags to consider, and pitfalls abound.
A dedicated fund for parks would be administered by a state agency, no matter how many locks you put on the box. So some governor can come along and raid it anyway. History has shown that already, by repeated raids on the Environmental Protection Fund.
State legislation would be needed to create the fund, which means politics comes into play. Who knows where that takes us?
I wonder how other environmental groups will feel about a competitor for the EPF? And what will the fund actually pay for? Will it be limited to operations and maintenance of existing state parks, or can it be used to hire more personnel, or buy more land for parks?
At the moment, the alliance is looking at two models as the revenue source for a dedicated fund.
The Montana model puts a small surcharge on motor vehicle registrations. The Washington, D.C. model charges a nickle surcharge for those using plastic shopping bags. I can hear the yelps already from overtaxed vehicle owners. Shoppers, maybe less so.
Anyway, that's still to be worked out. It's a fabulous idea, comes just at the right time, and Andrew seems to like it.
Keep in mind, we have to do something, or its gut-wrenching time all over again with our parks.
Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.