BACKYARD MATTERS: Closing Parks won't Save States Money

Friday, April 2, 2010 -- Ned Sullivan

Several times I've written about Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, which sits atop the former Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge spanning New York's Hudson River. Since opening last October, nearly half a million people have enjoyed the spectacular views, shattering projected visitation figures and boosting local businesses. Yet to help close an $8.2-billion deficit, Gov. David Paterson has proposed closing the park three months a year and opening it only five days a week the rest of the time. It's one of nearly 80 state parks and historic sites slated for closure or cutbacks to save $6.3 million.

Another potential victim is Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, the magnificent 18th-century home of one of New York's earliest and most prominent landowning families, which now sits in the heart of the state's fourth largest city. Long a source of civic pride and a center for community meetings, the mansion connects hundreds of local schoolchildren each year with the Hudson Valley's past. And it figures in ambitious plans to revitalize the city's long-depressed downtown by uncovering portions of an historic Hudson River tributary that flows past the house -- a project decades in the making led by the mayor and supported by state, civic, business and environmental leaders.

To be fair, Gov. Paterson isn't the only fiscally challenged chief executive targeting parks. California's Gov. Schwarzenegger caused a huge stir last year when he proposed shuttering 80 percent of his state's 278 natural and historic areas. Nationally, current park "hit lists" include everything from the world's largest natural travertine bridge in Arizona to a mecca for bald eagles in Virginia.

During the Great Depression, parks weren't padlocked -- they were created. So why are they such attractive targets for budget-cutting now? I suppose because it appears to be an easy solution: Just drain the pools, stack up the picnic tables, bolt the gates and let the savings accrue. It fails to account that someone still must monitor the property, or that there are costs involved in securing and (eventually, one hopes) reopening the facilities.

But there's a deeper reason parks and historic sites bear the brunt of deficit-reduction measures. Too many leaders believe they are a luxury, great places to while away some time but not essential to our daily lives. They ignore that while furnishing nearby residents with recreation, education and inspiration -- necessities for most of us -- these places also are potent economic engines.

According to the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD), the 725 million visitors to America's 6,000 state natural and historic treasures last year generated $20 billion in spending. That's quite a return on the $2.3-billion nationwide budget outlay for these areas. In New York, a study released in 2009 showed that every $1 investment made in one of the Empire State's parks returns $5 in local spending. In the 10-county Hudson River Valley alone, state parks are a linchpin of a $4.7-billion tourism industry that sustains 80,000 jobs, delivering millions of dollars to state and local coffers via sales and income taxes. Yet under Gov. Paterson's plan, some two dozen valley parks -- from Revolutionary War forts to spectacular hiking trails -- face closure or reductions in hours.

Fortunately, here and elsewhere people are fighting back. Across New York, organizations like Scenic Hudson, which I head, have been urging residents to contact their legislators and push not only for the reinstatement of park funding cuts -- less than 1 percent of the state budget -- but for maintaining mandated funding for protecting land and creating even more parks. (It seems to be working: a preliminary Senate budget restores the parks cuts.)

Out West, the grassroots California State Parks Foundation helped convince legislators to rescind parks closures. The organization now is working on securing a place on the November ballot for the California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act, which would add an $18 State Park Access Pass surcharge on vehicle licenses, with the money earmarked for maintaining the state's great parks. Even the NASPD has joined the fray: It created the America's State Parks alliance to "mobilize and educate policy makers on the positive impact state parks have on public health and local economies."

Theodore Roosevelt firmly believed in setting aside land for public enjoyment. As New York's governor, he established the state's parks system. As President, he doubled America's national parks. Speaking of the country's unspoiled landscapes, he once said, "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune." As legislators in the 50 state capitols grapple with daunting fiscal dilemmas, we must be vigilant they do nothing to jeopardize our "glorious heritage."