Let’s Remember The Other State Park System

One of the issues arising out of the new state budget process that has struck a nerve with the public is the proposed closure of a number of  State parks.  New York State has one of the oldest – and largest – state park systems in the country.  The people of this state take a great deal of pride in their parks, and the idea of closing them is a serious blow.  But, the furor around this centers around one state agency:  The Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation.   This is the agency which the vast majority of people – and the news media – think of when they talk about “state parks.”   They’re under the assumption that this agency runs all the parks in the state.  The truth is it’s just one of two agencies running major state park systems in the state.   The other state park system is run by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

This comes as a surprise to many people.  Most people think of DEC as the environmental protection agency for the state, with fish, wildlife, and forestry management functions.  Yes, DEC does have those functions.  It also runs a major campground system with 52 campgrounds.  It’s responsible for 3500 miles of trails.   It also has wilderness camping and recreation responsibilities on Forest Preserve and State Forest lands, along with fishing access points, day use areas, four education camps, and a ski center. It’s a larger system by itself than many other states have for their park systems.   The land it manages in the Catskills alone is bigger than the park lands for entire state of Minnesota.

Although it’s overlooked by the public and press, like its counterpart in OPRHP it has undergone years of cuts,  and is now being seriously cut again.  In the proposed state budget, there are a number of cuts outlined for the Department.  Unless you know the organization of the Department, it’s easy to miss where some of the most significant cuts are being made – in the Division of Operations.  What does that have to do with parks?  Operations is the division of DEC that runs the campgrounds, ski area,  and maintenance for the trails and wilderness camping areas.  It’s getting an 18% cut, along with the majority of the overall position cuts.  In Commisioner Grannis’ testimony before the state legislature, he shows that DEC is at it’s lowest staffing level  since the early 1980’s.  Six campgrounds were closed last year, although four of them were re-opened for limited seasons after local governments protested.  One of the closures has been made permanent.  This year, one of the campgrounds (Poplar Point) has been closed.

Besides the public not realizing the extent of DEC’s responsibilities,  there a difference in how this they’re  staffed and funded.  The campgrounds and the ski center are expected to be cost-neutral when it comes to their operations.  DEC campgrounds are seasonal, as are their employees. This keeps most of it “off the books” when it comes to the state budget.  The trails and wilderness camping comes under the Division of Lands and Forests, with Operations providing the trail crews,  access road maintenance, and construction of various facilities, like lean-to’s and outhouses.   Lands and Forests also hires Assistant Forest Rangers, who are seasonal personnel with the responsibility to supervise and maintain the wilderness camping areas during peak season.

Most of the cuts over the years haven’t been quite as noticeable or as publicized as the OPRHP cuts.   If you don’t know the extent of the system that DEC has,  along with how the responsibilities are divided within the Department, it’s  difficult to see what impact a given reduction in personnel or funding will have.   Even then, it’s tough to see the overall picture over time.   But, it’s possible, and unfortunately, it’s been unnoticed by the public, unless you live in an area where the DEC and its facilities have been a major part of the economy.  Many of the people in my area remember “what it was like” two decades ago.   They remember that there was a fairly large Operations group in the region,  which is now a  small group – but that the responsibilities have grown with the state’s land acquisition.  Some remember having summer jobs working on the trail crews, and now there is just one trail crew.   Others remember that several of the local campgrounds used to stay open until early December, but now close on Columbus Day.

While many of those positions were seasonal, if the expenses of operating the campgrounds were covered by their revenue, why would cuts in the state budget matter?  Because it doesn’t cover the entire system, and in particular the capital expenditures.   Trail crews and Assistant Forest Rangers are paid out of the state funds.  Operations provides the major maintenance and construction support for the campgrounds.  If a building needs repair, water system breaks, or there are electrical problems, the local full-time Operations personnel perform those functions.  Over the years,  personnel cuts in this Division, and budget reductions elsewhere, have led to cut-backs in the support that can be provided.  The same cuts also impacted the other areas that DEC maintains.  Lean-to’s aren’t replaced when necessary.  Trails don’t receive regular maintenance.  Access points fall into disrepair.

Just as with OPRHP, DEC recreational facilities have been receiving real cuts for a long time.  As budget restrictions were emplaced, the recreation and maintenance functions are among the first cut, along with their personnel.  When the economy and budget climate improves, they’re not restored.  Adding more land to the Forest Preserve is popular with environmentalists, but the additional staffing to cover the added responsibilities isn’t.  Over the past two decades, trails have been closed because of a lack of maintenance, making them become unsafe,  or impassable.   In previous posts, I’ve talked about what happens to parks and the effect it has on the morale of the people working at them as a result of these cuts over time and the impact of the newest round of cuts.  What’s true of OPRHP is just as true of DEC.     We should remember that as we advocate for our parks.  Yes, we do need to restore the cuts to OPRHP parks, and keep them open.  At the same time, let’s not forget the other park system we have – it’s just as important.

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