From OPEN SPACE NEWSLETTER, Fall Winter 2010
Can we afford funding for parks when there are so many other budget issues in New York right now?
JM: We found out a year ago in the state budget crisis just how important state parks are. When the governor threatened to close up to 90 parks, there was a huge public response. And even though the state was facing large cuts in education and health care services, the number of people that called their legislators on behalf of state parks outnumbered virtually every other issue by at least 5 to 1. People regard state parks as their own and until they were threatened with closures, they were taken for granted. The proposed closures became a poster child for the dysfunction in Albany. People responded vociferously to keep them open, and in the end the legislature and governor scrambled for a solution. A deal was struck right before Memorial Day that kept the parks open.
We have a long, proud parks tradition in New York. We have the oldest state park in the country in Niagara Falls, and one of the largest park systems in the country. In the Capital District, there’s Thatcher State Park; in Long Island, it’s Jones Beach; in Buffalo, it’s Niagara Falls. They are scattered across the state, they come in all shapes and sizes and about 47 million people from New York, surrounding states and other countries have visited them through August of this year.
Are parks and economic development at odds with each other?
JM: Not only are they not at odds, but parks are economic development. In many rural upstate communities, state parks are the center of economic activity. People who visit state parks buy local services. They stop at the restaurants, they gas up their cars, and they buy provisions and supplies. In New York, it’s estimated that parks generate about $2 billion worth of activity to local businesses, and studies indicate that for every dollar that the state invests in the parks system, $5 is returned to local economies around the state. That’s a huge number. Statewide, state parks provide about 20,000 jobs and the average salary per park employee is about $50,000, so from an employment perspective, it’s hugely important for local economies from Long Island to Buffalo.
So why was there a push to close parks this year?
JM: The budget in New York State was clearly out of balance and they had to find places to cut. The state’s operating budget for parks is $160 million, and I think the calculation was that parks have to suffer like everything else in New York. But clearly that thinking was shortsighted since the state gets more back from its investment in parks than it spends. Budget cutters also lost sight of the fact that for many New Yorkers, parks are the public face of government, where they clearly get good value for their tax dollars. To make matters worse, the state targeted parks more heavily than many other areas of state government.
But in the end, they found a way to keep the parks open and, in the process, the state’s leaders realized just how important parks are to communities across the state. But the education process has to continue and that is one of the things that OSI’s new Alliance for New York State Parks program will focus heavily on.
With new faces in Albany, what can we realistically hope for parks funding moving forward?
JM: I think we can expect that Governor-elect Cuomo and the newly elected legislature will do everything they can to avoid park closures. Even though New York’s budget is going to be precarious, last year’s outcry will be fresh in their minds and they will do everything they can to avoid cuts to our parks. Having said that, we can’t take anything for granted. One of the Alliance’s objectives is to mount a public education process, both for government officials and the public at large—to let people know just how important parks are for our economy, how important they are biologically, and how important they are to New Yorkers’ quality of life. We also hope to identify potential new revenue sources that could be used to supplement the parks budget.
Is OSI going to tailor its conservation efforts to focus on parklands?
JM: The initial focus of the Alliance will be twofold. One is ensuring that there is adequate funding for the parks system. We know there is a huge backlog in maintenance and capital improvement projects at state parks. The second issue is ensuring adequate staff to keep our parks open and operating. So, identifying new funding sources and expanding the resources that are available to state parks will be a major focus. As you know, OSI has been creating new state parks and expanding others for years. Although the state’s budget problems will slow down the acquisition of new parkland, OSI will continue to work with state agencies on acquisition projects that help buffer and protect parks, provide better public access and help ensure their long-term ecological integrity. As the state’s budget improves and EPF funding is restored, land protection projects will become an increasingly important part of the Alliance’s mission.
Now that the Alliance has been launched, what is your number one agenda item for the parks system?
JM: We will work with our partners around the state to ensure that parks receive sufficient support so that none are closed and the deferred maintenance throughout the system is addressed. We also intend to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign to supplement state funds with private dollars. State parks are at a tipping point. OSI’s Alliance for New York State Parks will help ensure that New York’s magnificent parks and historic sites stay open, accessible, and in good repair for the millions of patrons that visit them annually.