Parks as an economic linchpin

Towards the end of last Year Meteor Blades had a front page story over at Daily Kos about the disasters looming with state budgets.  One of the key points is this:

What that means – because states must balance their budgets – is a coming tsunami of lay-offs, reductions in services and increased fees for institutions like universities.

This is not news to many residents of New York State.  The legislature has yet to pass a budget, and state parks are facing closures and cut-backs.   Cutting payroll always sounds like a good idea – unless the government turns out to be your economic linchpin and steadiest employer.  I live in the Adirondack Park, and this area has been the subject of a series of such cuts over the years.  Why should you care?

The  Adirondack Park  is the largest park and the largest state-level protected area in the contiguous United States.  Because of the nature of the park, there’s a limit on how much industry can exist here.  For the most part, the jobs have been in tourism, lumber, mining, and government.   Over the years, timber and mining have decreased – not quite vanished, but decreased – leaving tourism as the major private employer.   Tourism is a predominantly seasonal industry.  Summer is when business booms.  Hunting season is another busy season, although that has decreased, and winter sports add it.

Unless you owned your own business, there were few employers if you wanted a year-round steady paycheck.  The biggest, and most reliable were government agencies.  In the Adirondacks, the two major state agencies employing people are the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Conservation.  Both have received recent cuts and hiring freezes. When these are added to the cuts received in the past, there has been a serious impact on the local economy.  Both agencies also provided a range of seasonal work, which was often a gateway into a full-time position.

Starting in the late 80’s, things began to change.  Some were due to regulatory changes, while others were due to “efficiency” measures. Then came a round of budget cuts.  Some full-time positions were shifted away from the area.  People who retired were not replaced.  Some positions were cut, and jobs that were once done “in house” were done by contractors.  Things evened out for a while, until another budget crisis, and once again positions were cut.  In the current round, even more positions are on the block.  Open slots aren’t being filled.  Retirees aren’t replaced.  Seasonal positions are being cut or done away with.  The jobs that used to be there are no longer there, and what the previous rounds of cuts have shown is they won’t come back.

While job cuts are in and of themselves a blow to the local economy, that’s not the entire picture.  Someone outside the area might look at it as “they  only lost X jobs, and while that sucks, it’s not a big deal.”  Which is true, as far as it goes.  Yes, the  jobs did leave and weren’t replaced.  But the effect is magnified by the loss of what these employees did.  Remember, earlier I said that tourism is a major portion of the economy.  The state is the economic linchpin.  People come here to hike, to camp, to ski, to snowmobile, to hunt, to fish, and to experience nature.  The ability to do that depends on the state.  The trails, campgrounds, and water access points are for the most part owned by the state.

To show you the economic impact, let’s look at the small hamlet of  Inlet, NY.    Fewer than 400 people live there year-round.   It’s a pretty little place, with shops, a grocery store, hardware store, restaurants, and hotels.  During the summer, the population increases, due to the the number of summer homes.  It’s always been a “tourist town.”  The reason it’s economically viable is not because of the summer residents – it’s because of the state.  Next to the town are two state campgrounds:   Limekiln Lake and Eighth Lake.  On a summer weekend, there can be over 2000 people in those two campgrounds, many of whom will spend money in Inlet.   Inlet is also the midpoint of a major canoe route – the Fulton Chain route, is one of the entrance points into the  Moose River Plains Wild Forest recreation area,  and has several state-run boat launches.   During the winter months, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers use state trails.  Because of the state facilities, and what the state does, Inlet attracts a large number of people, who will spend money in the area.  The employment provided by the state has a massive economic impact far beyond the direct impact of the salaries.

What the budget cuts have meant is that there are fewer people to maintain the trails, the campgrounds and wilderness camping areas,  and the roads to get to them them.  What the previous cuts have done – and current ones are doing – is to impact the quality of those.  Recently there was an article in the local paper about the declining quality of the hiking trails.  Other trails have been closed in the past few years.   Campgrounds in the area have been putting off maintenance, and this year several will be closed because of budget cuts, and other programs are being cut as well.   It starts a vicious cycle.  There are fewer amenities, it’s harder to get to an area, and what is there is less enjoyable, so fewer people return.  Local businesses close, and the employment they provided vanishes.  That reduces the demand, and the “need” for people, causing the cycle to keep going.

New York is not the only state that’s in this situation.  There are a number of states that are in budget crises.  As they cut back spending, environmental and environmental recreation aspects are often the first on the block.   The recent budget furors in Pennsylvania and California had their state parks on the block.  Yet those same parks are often  economic linchpins for their areas.

The states do not have the money to reverse this trend, particularly in the current budget climate.  The Federal government is a different story.  Some work is being done with Recovery Act funding.  But more is needed to create jobs.  Green jobs.  Trails need major repairs.  Campgrounds need renovation.  Invasive species need control.  That’s just a small sample of the things that need to be done, which have been cut back over the years.  It would not only provide direct employment, but serve as a springboard the rest of the economy.  It also helps the environment and enables future generations to enjoy the wilderness.

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4 Comments

Filed under Parks

4 responses to “Parks as an economic linchpin

  1. Our “park” model is the source of much of our problems.

    Are you suggesting the Federalization of “the Adirondacks”? Seems like it may be too late to apply the National Parks model here.

    • No, I’m not suggesting that at all. Besides violating our state constitution, federalizing a park like the Adirondacks isn’t something the fed’s would want.

      What I’m saying is that “minor” cutbacks in state spending can have a major impact on local economies, particularly in areas where tourism is a major factor in the economy. For example, the closing of a campground doesn’t just have the loss of the jobs associated directly with it, it also impacts every business nearby. Cutting your trail crews in half means that some of your trails won’t get maintained, which means fewer hikers will take them. People who used to, or would, come to hike – don’t. Fewer people coming means less spending in the area. It becomes a cycle after a while.

      Right now, as I said in this and other posts here, there’s a lot of cut-backs going on. We all understand that the budget has to be cut, and that parks and recreation spending looks to be a juicy target. The problem is that it’s often that same spending that’s an economic linchpin of areas. Almost every state has this problem now, and what I’m suggesting is that the federal government might be able to temporarily pick up some of the slack.

  2. I agree that many of these state-funded things are economic generators – but most folks don’t understand how much. Simply saying that these parks should “break-even” is ignoring the greater impact.

    While some temporary federal-relief may be helpful, I’m afraid a more permanent arrangement may be necessary here in NY.

    • Oh I agree. The biggest problem is going to be keeping the politicians’ fingers out of any money they may generate. As the past has shown, if there’s a pot of money around, politicians will find a way to tap it.