Angry New Yorkers
Another State To Close Half its Parks
By Darrin Youker | Online Only | Mar. 15, 2010
Patricia Burkhart grew up poor in Queens, N.Y. Her family couldn't take elaborate vacations, but they could take advantage of nearby state parks, and Burkhart never forgot what they meant to her.
Today, far removed from the poverty of her early years, Burkhart is standing up for New York's 178 state parks, believing they still make a difference in the lives of countless New Yorkers.
The Empire State has joined the ranks of several states across the nation that have chosen to close budget gaps by shutting parks and historic sites. Gov. David Paterson has proposed closing 41 parks and 14 historic sites and cutting back services at other state facilities, a move that will save the state $6.3 million.
Rumors about closing start parks had been swirling around Albany for months, but the full extent of the plan was not known until Paterson released his budget in February. Closing some parks is necessary to help the cash-strapped state, he said. "Spending cuts, however difficult, are needed in order to put New York on the road to fiscal recovery," Patterson said in a statement.
The proposal has galvanized New Yorkers. Even with the state's diverse population, New Yorkers from upstate to New York City have united behind a common goal of keeping their parks open.
Facebook groups supporting state parks popped up overnight, and last month thousands rallied in Albany to protest the changes. The budget cuts have not been finalized, but the proposal is part of the state budget due April 1.
"The legislature is the only group that stands in the way of closure," says Daniel Mackay, director of public policy at the Preservation League of New York State. "Our message is that no park deserves to be closed."
Burkhart was one of the thousands who descended on the capital on Feb. 20. She protested the proposed closure of Brentwood State Park on Long Island, which serves as a green oasis for the densely populated and impoverished community near Islip. Closing that facility would be a grave injustice to area residents, she says.
"They use that park for everything. This is a rough neighborhood that has had its share of gangs," Burkhart says. "This park has become their crown jewel."
To make matters worse, Patterson's proposal could prompt more closures, including that of all 38 of the state's historic sites, which range from Walt Whitman's Long Island birthplace to George Washington's Headquarters in Newburgh.
"It's a tragedy because parks have not closed in New York State, not even during the Great Depression," says Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, based in Albany. "It's a symbol of failed government."
Closing parks comes at a time when visitation has grown significantly, says Cindy Abbott Letro, park commissioner for the Niagara region. Last year, visitation at New York parks increased by 2 million people as more New Yorkers chose to vacation closer to home, she says. And, Letro adds, parks generate revenue for the state through user fees.
"It seems extremely short-sighted," Letro says. "We feel it is dangerous. You are increasing public anger. Parks are one thing that is sacrosanct."
The cuts will deliver another serious blow to the upstate New York economy, says Susan Gibson, president of Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance. Sackets Harbor, the site of a battle during the War of 1812, overlooks Lake Ontario on the Black River Bay. The battlefield gets more than 96,000 visitors a year, and the site is vital to the area's economy, Gibson says.
A summer reenactment, which would draw hundreds of re-enactors from the U.S. and Canada, may not happen if the state moves ahead with its plan to close the site, she said.
"The community will feel a deep sense of loss," Gibson says.
Lawmakers should investigate how park closures will impact the economy, Mackay says. For every dollar spent by the government on state parks, there is a $5 return to the local economy, he estimates.
"State parks and historic sites are the linchpins of the upstate economy," Mackay says. "The closure list is devastating."
A number of New Yorkers are concerned about the impact park closures will have on their quality of life.
"States are seizing on these kinds of closures as a solution to fiscal crises, but sadly, they can expect that any short-term—and small—savings that might be realized from closing state parks and sites will be dwarfed by the cost of deferred maintenance and damage that will accrue over time," says Roberta Lane, senior program officer and regional attorney at the Boston-based Northeast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Through the worst economic cycles of the last century, this legacy of beloved, edifying, and invigorating places was sustained as a priority by the state—and helped sustain people," Lane says.
Since moving to the Albany area two years ago, Anni P. Murray has spent her weekends exploring John Boyd Thacher State Park, now slated for closure. The park overlooks the Helderberg Escarpment, one of the richest fossil beds on the East Coast. A number of rugged hiking trails crisscross the area. Hikers are rewarded with a variety of views, from clearings above the Albany skyline, to others that reveal unbroken wilderness.
It's a place Murray has grown to love, and one she will not stand to lose. Murray started a Facebook group to support the park, and the site quickly gained more than 12,000 supporters.
She hopes that public outrage over possible park closings will resonate with lawmakers.
"I just got upset and really angry because the parks are one of our most basic public goods. To have something like that taken away, I can't stand for it," she says. "I have a lot of hope that we will be heard."
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