Thinking about parks

As readers of this blog may have gathered, I’m something of a “park maven.”   This year, there was a huge outcry when it was announced that various parks and campgrounds around the state would be closed to cut the budget.   After much debate and political maneuvering, funding was found and restored to keep them open the parks this year.   As I pointed out in earlier postings, it does nothing to address next year – or the future.   For the past couple of years, it’s been a round of battles to keep various parks and campgrounds open, followed by a stopgap measure to keep the system limping along.  It doesn’t do much to address the actual problems that the park systems face.

Having thought about it for a long time, I came up with the following proposals.  It starts with a complete evaluation of the park systems, and looking at some questions:

  1. Why is this a state park?  It’s an obvious question that often doesn’t get asked.  Are there some exceptional scenic or ecologic features that needs protection?  Does it have major historical significance?  Does it serve a need for its area?
  2. What is the status of its infrastructure?  Is it in good condition, fair, poor, or in need of major repair or construction?
  3. How much is it utilized?  Is it busy, or do just a few people a year show up?
  4. What’s it cost to operate?  How many personnel, how much equipment and supplies are needed to keep this going?

Why these questions?  Being realistic, the fact is that we have more parks than we can adequately support.  That’s harsh, and I don’t like saying it, but it doesn’t remove the fiscal reality.  For the past several years, the state has been scraping up the money to just operate the parks,  and ignoring the 700 million dollars (in 2008) maintenance backlog.  That backlog dollar figure is likely to be on the low side, and definitely is higher now.    Some hard decisions will have to be made, regarding the allocation of resources.  The answers to these questions give you a starting point to make those decisions.  The answer to number one – why is this a state park – may (and probably will) show that there are some that really shouldn’t be parks.   There are any number of reasons why the were in the first place.  Someone left it to the state, the state ended up with it because of a tax default, or some politician decided they wanted a state park in their district.   One thing I found out a while back is that there is at least one state park in every state Assembly and Senate district.  While I’m quite sure that the politicians are happy with that, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary.   If the answer to the first question is “No idea,” then it’s a good candidate for closure and sale.

The next three questions are designed to make decisions regarding “triage” of the remainder.  If I have a park that needs major – and expensive – infrastructure overhaul, and it’s lightly used (currently and historically), then it’s probably a better idea to close it than to use the resources to overhaul it.  A park that has very low usage and a high operational cost is another that should be considered as a closure candidate.  In between that, there’s a balancing act – and one should try to lean towards keeping it open.  Parks identified for closure may end up being transferred to local groups or governments, “mothballed”, or shut down permanently.

That leads us to the second phase – looking at how they’re staffed and managed.

  1. How many agencies do you need, and can they be merged?
  2. Is there a top-heavy management structure, with too many people in offices, not enough in the field?
  3. Should some be seasonally operated, versus full-time?

New York State has two major park systems.   The OPRHP and the NYSDEC systems, either one of which would be considered “large” by any other state’s measure.  But that’s not the entirety of it.  There’s also the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) which runs the Lake Placid Olympic training facility,  another ski area (Gore Mountain), and handles the Empire State Games among its responsibilities.  There are also a number of “single park” authorities,  the NYS Thruway and Canal Authority, and the Dept. of Transportation which also have “park” and “recreational” responsibilities.  While there may have been good reasons for those divisions in the past,  it doesn’t mean that those reasons are still valid.  There may be a different division of responsibility needed, and some of  the authorities and responsibilities folded into other agencies.    A top-heavy management structure, or one that has management awkwardly placed may need pruning or realignment.  Some parks that currently have full-time personnel assigned to them may be better shifted to seasonal status.

The third phase is to:

  1. Develop  consistent and dedicated funding mechanisms
  2. Develop long-term plans for maintenance and operations
  3. Have a procedure for adding to the park system and re-evaluating existing parks

One of the major issues that was highlighted this spring was that the state park systems are extremely dependent on the state General Fund and the state budgeting process.  There was a lot of discussion about making the parks self-funding, or cost-neutral.  One of the other questions I was asked back then was why a certain very busy park didn’t seem to have any money for repairs.  I heard a lot of people around my area wondering why the DEC campgrounds were being the subject of serious cuts, given that they’d made money the previous year.  The answer turns out to be that all that money goes back to the General Fund.    That means it’s subject to the whims of the state budgeting process.  In short, it doesn’t matter that DEC’s recreation operations made 2.5 million dollars profit in 2009.  Yes, that’s the actual figure according to Commissioner Grannis’ testimony before the Assembly.   That money didn’t get returned to the recreation operations, or used for that purpose.   Instead, it was sent to the General Fund, and the funding in the  2010 budget – which had significant cuts -  was what they had to operate on.   That process needs to be changed.  Yes, there are efficiencies to be found, costs to be cut, and parks can do more to increase their revenue.  But hand in hand with that, they need to be able to keep that money!    We also need to recognize that park are not likely to become totally self-sustaining.  New Hampshire tried it, and hasn’t worked well.  Besides being allowed to keep their self-generated income, parks need to have some other form – or forms – of reliable funding which is not subject to the annual battles in Albany, and cannot  be reallocated for “other purposes.”

With that, we need to look at maintenance and operations costs.  The figure a couple of years ago for OPRHP was some 700 million dollars in maintenance backlog.  While some of that may be cut down by closing or reductions for parks, there’s still a significant amount of maintenance that needs to be accomplished.   That is not a short term project.  There needs to be serious consideration of how to fund those maintenance projects, and it needs to be combined with plans for ongoing maintenance.

Finally, we need to look at how we add parks to the system in the future.  One of the moments of incredulity during the announcements of major park closures this spring was that Governor Paterson was giving a speech at the opening of a new state park!   Yes, there was a new state park being opened at the same time over 50 existing ones were being closed.  It may well have been a good idea for a state park, but the tone-deafness of it was stunning.   But it points out something that we need to take into consideration for the future.  Any additions to the system should go through the same process of evaluation in that I mentioned in the first phase.

The State of New York has one of the most exceptional sets of parks in the nation – and even the world.  A set of places with  pristine environments,  great natural beauty, and enormous historical signficance.  The park systems serve multiple functions and constituencies.  But with those, we need to realize that it’s a long-term commitment, and one that costs money.    What the political battles this spring showed was that the people of this state love their parks, and are willing to pay for them.  But, we also must realize that there are limits to what we can do, and that hard decisions must be made.    In trying to do it all, we’ve done a poor job in keeping up what we have.  We need to start doing a better job,  and think of the long-term.

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3 responses to “Thinking about parks

  1. You have been giving some real consideration to the parks dilemma in your state. Excellent post!

    You should print it out and send it as a letter to every member of the state legislature, start park authorities and the Governor.

    One thought as I was reading the post. To protect the lands (at least some) from potential development how about considering that some of the parks to be closed be changed over to protected state wilderness zones?

    • Anything closed in the Adirondacks and Catskills would be protected under the “forever wild” provisions of the State constitution. Outside of that, what I’m envisioning is that if the state closes it as a park, it most likely would revert to “state forest” or similar status. Some of them might be readily transferable to town/county or non-profit groups, a limited number might be suited for sale, and others might be “mothballed” – kept in reserve pending better economic times for renovation and re-opening.

      One of the points I’d really like to see them address is that if they become more self-sufficient, that the money actually stays in the system. I know from talking to several people who are working in the parks systems that they’re very frustrated by that. They’re constantly harangued about the parks and campgrounds needing to make more money, etc., but they never see anything from it for their system. They may be making a profit, but if it doesn’t come back to the parks, they’re getting to the stage of “what’s the point?”

    • You should print it out and send it as a letter to every member of the state legislature, start park authorities and the Governor.

      Well, the new governor at least. :) The current one is the idiot who preciptated a lot of the mess in the first place. And, as a start, if you look over at The Albany Project, you’ll notice that there’s a certain familiar post on the front page. ;)