Eileen Larrabee's Testimony before the Assembly Standing
Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development
ALBANY, NY - November 16, 2015 - Committee Chair Markey, members of the committee, thank you for the
opportunity to discuss with you the important role state parks and historic
sites play in New York’s economy and highlight a number of projects that are
contributing to the revitalization of New York’s incomparable state park system.
I am Eileen Larrabee, Associate Director of the Alliance for New York
State Parks, an initiative of the Open Space Institute. For four decades, OSI
has been among New York’s leading land conservation nonprofits.
Through its 40 year history, OSI has added more than 40,000 acres to
New York’s state parks, accounting for more than 10 percent of the state park
system’s total acreage. During that time,
we, along with our conservation partners, have more than doubled the acreage of
such premier natural landscapes as Minnewaska, Fahnestock, Thacher, Moreau Lake
and Sterling Forest State Parks.
Four years ago, prompted by the deteriorating state of New York’s
signature parks, OSI launched a new program, the Alliance for New York State
Parks, aimed at revitalizing the state’s spectacular but aging park system.
Today, we stand with our parks advocacy partners, PTNY in applauding
Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the legislature for their collective
commitment to reversing decades of debilitating state park under-investment.
In a short period of time, state parks have seen a resounding
turnaround. Over the past four years, $380 million has been invested in our
state parks. Public buildings and facilities are being repaired and improved;
recreational attractions, such as trails and swimming pools, are being
upgraded; long-ignored, failing electrical and water systems are being
addressed; and new playgrounds, campgrounds and picnic pavilions are being
This commitment of public funding is also leveraging new private
investment. I am happy to report that OSI is raising private dollars to amplify
the state’s commitment. As of now, we have raised more than $10 million in
private funds and grants to enhance park improvement efforts.
Highlights of our efforts include:
- $2.1 million toward a $6.8 million nature center
at Letchworth State Park, where OSI is funding exhibits for the new building
and creating an endowment fund to care for the center into the future.
- At Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, OSI
has raised $1.2 million toward the restoration of the beach complex and is
embarking on a new project to transform the park’s public gateways though
improved wayfinding and trailheads.
- At Thacher Park outside Albany, we are raising
$1 million, again leveraging state funds, to build a new visitor center for the
- At Riverbank State Park in Harlem, we are
about to launch a $600,000 campaign to make extensive improvements to the
park’s popular public theater space.
- And finally, at Minnewaska State Park in
Ulster County, OSI is committed to raising $3 million toward a new $7.3 million
gateway visitor center at the spectacular park. We’ve also committed $1.9
million to restore the park’s iconic carriage roads which make the park and its
inspiring views accessible for bikers and walkers of all ages and abilities.
We are extraordinarily grateful for the state’s renewed commitment to
improving parks, and honored to be in a position to stretch those public
dollars, wherever possible – all in order to create the best park experiences
for the system’s growing number of visitors.
In seeking the best experience for park goers, I reiterate our
continuing concern for the State Park’s stagnant operating funds. Over the last
several years, the agency’s operating budget has been cut by 23 percent and it
is functioning today with 1,500 fewer staff than in 2008.
Of particular concern is that this significant funding drop-off comes
at a time when the agency and all of us here are celebrating a 10 percent
increase in state park visitation. As we come together today to discuss the
role state parks and historic sites play as tourism attractions and
destination, it is critical to recognize that it’s not enough to get people to
visit a park once. They need to have a positive experience so that they return
again and again – that means a welcoming, safe environment; attentive staff;
and clean and functioning bathrooms, swimming pools and campgrounds.
And while I am on the subject of park visitors, allow me to call your
attention to a series of park visitorship studies OSI has issued over the past
several years. The reports delve into the demographics and ethnic diversity of
state park users. They also seek to capture particulars of the overall park
experience – from personal connections to the parks and potential areas of
improvement to the economic impact visitors have on the local economies.
Among the key findings of the six different studies commissioned by
OSI is that New York’s state parks are much more than local community assets. They
are economic drivers and valued regional destinations. I would also underscore
that our surveys demonstrate a direct connection between New York City
residents and the state parks that surround the five boroughs.
With this being said, I again express gratitude to members of the
Assembly for your ongoing support for New York’s State Parks. And in
particular, I thank you for acknowledging that our tremendous state parks are
critical to a vibrant and diverse tourism industry in New York State.
Thank you very much for your time.