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With State Parks at Risk, Advocates Seek New Funding Sources

Riverbank State Park
Photo by Ruthanne Reid
After layoffs take effect Dec. 31, Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, the fourth most visited of New York's state parks, will lose all four of its rangers and see its hours significantly cut back.

When Gov. David Paterson threatened to close 88 state parks and historic sites last spring, he unleashed a torrent of public outrage. Legislators said they received more phone calls, letters, emails and petitions on parks than on any other issue.

The closings were averted when the Paterson administration agreed to restore $11 million to the parks budget after legislators consented to slashing the Environmental Protection Fund, which pays for land acquisition, recycling and other environmental needs. But the park system is still at risk.

Several parks upstate are already slated for closing after the latest round of layoffs that will go into effect Dec. 31. Riverbank State Park in Harlem is losing all four of its rangers, and hours are being significantly curtailed.

More than a decade of declining funding for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has cut its operations to the bone. Further budget reductions will inevitably lead to more closed parks and hours reduced to the point that sites will not be open when people want to visit.

Advocates hope to build on the outpouring of grassroots support last spring to get new funding dedicated to the parks. With the state facing a huge budget gap -- and the new administration vowing not to raise taxes -- parks supporters are looking at new funding mechanisms that could help pay for parks, not just in this current crisis but for the long term.

andrew cuomo

In his Cleaner, Greener NY agenda released just before the election, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo recognized the importance of parks to the state's economy and environment, and pledged to "work to ensure that they stay open for the benefit of all New Yorkers." He did not, though, offer any specifics other than encouraging private-public partnerships and local community involvement. It remains to be seen whether Cuomo will find a way to put one of the nation's great park systems back on a solid footing.

125 Years of Parks

When Paterson made closing the parks a symbol of the need for fiscal austerity during last year's budget negotiations, his message was "parks are a luxury we can't afford."

Judging from the impassioned response to the prospect of closings and a rise in park attendance, the public has a different view. "Parks are one of the principal public interfaces of government, where people know they get their tax dollars back," said Eric Kulleseid, a former state parks official who now directs the Alliance for New York State Parks, a group recently launched to increase both public and private support for the parks.

New York established the first state park in the nation, creating the Niagara Reservation in 1885 to protect the spectacular falls from encroaching industrialization and allow public access. The state park system now includes 178 parks and 35 historic sites. It provides every kind of outdoor recreation and preserves scenic landscapes, a diversity of plant and animal life and the state and nation's political and cultural history.

State parks are also a key component of New York’s tourism industry. They attract 57 million visitors a year, bringing an annual economic boost of $1.9 billion and generating 20,000 jobs (not including parks employees). A 2009 study by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that every dollar invested in state parks (both operating and capital) returns $5 in economic benefits.

In many upstate areas hard hit by the economic downturn, parks are a lifeline.

"We're very short-sighted if we don't keep all of the parks open," said Steve Engelbright, chair of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development.

There are four state parks in New York City, including Riverbank State Park along the Hudson River, the fourth most visited park in the state. City residents also count on state parks for day trips to escape the summer heat and for affordable vacations. Some of the most popular parks in the system, such as Jones Beach and Harriman, are within easy reach of the city.

State of the State Parks

Like many other states, New York has not made its parks and historic sites a budget priority even in good times. In the decade leading up to the economic crisis, the operating budget of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservationsteadily declined even as the system added 26 new parks.

Over the last three years, the agency took an even deeper hit. Even before the showdown over park closures last spring, repeated budget cuts had forced the agency to shorten the season and hours at 100 parks and historic sites. Since 2008, its operating budget was cut seven times, going from $195 million to less than $160 million in the current fiscal year -- an overall cut of 18 percent that surpasses the reductions in other budget areas.

As a result, the parks agency staff dropped from 5,000 permanent and seasonal workers in 2008 to less than 3,600 in 2010, with additional positions cut as of January. The cuts strike directly at park maintenance and operation because 90 percent of the agency's staff works in the field.

Although last spring’s budget deal restored the bare minimum of funding needed to reopen the parks for the summer, the most recent elimination of staff positions will result in the closing of some parks and facilities, and the reduction of maintenance and hours of operation at others, said Acting Commissioner Andy Beers in testimony at a joint hearing of the Assembly standing committees for Parks, Recreation, and Sports Development, and Oversight, Analysis, and Investigation.

knox farm state park
On Jan. 1, the state will close Know Fram State ark near Buffalo.

As of Jan. 1, the state will shutter Knox Farm State Park outside Buffalo. Two other Buffalo-area parks, Joseph Davis State Park and Woodlawn Beach State Park, will also close unless an agreement is reached for local governments to operate them.

In addition to the reductions in services at Riverbank State Park, the cuts would eliminate the sole ranger at Roberto Clemente state park in the Bronx.

Beers said that several state historic sites that close for the winter probably will not open in 2011. The agency expects to reduce days and hours of operation, facility maintenance and upkeep, and interpretive programming at some locations, and close swimming pools, nature centers and campgrounds at others, but has not yet determined which sites will be affected.

The agency also has a $1 billion backlog of necessary repairs and infrastructure upgrades, according to its own 2010 analysis. Decades of deferred repairs to deteriorating bridges, roads and pools, and sewage, drinking water and electrical systems risk the public's health and safety and make parks less enjoyable to visit.

When parks are closed and minimally maintained, they become vulnerable to damage from neglect and vandalism. It endangers the public, creates liabilities for the state and puts the taxpayers' financial investment at risk. Getting bathrooms, buildings, pools, trails and other facilities back in usable condition would likely cost many times the amount saved by budget cuts.

Searching for Solutions

Gearing up for the next legislative season, park advocates hope they can once again harness the enormous public support for state parks to prevent further cuts. To ensure the system’s future viability, they would like to put in place a dedicated funding source for state parks.

In November, the Alliance for New York State Parks and Parks & Trails New York, the statewide advocacy group that organized the opposition to park closings last year, issued a report calling for an end to cuts and restoration of funding for park operations, an increase in capital funding and a new dedicated mechanism to secure parks funding for the future.

"It's time to step back and think creatively about the ways to remedy the situation," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York. "A new, dedicated funding mechanism for parks seems to us the best chance to adequately support our iconic state park system, for ourselves and future generations."

Advocates have been gathering ideas from other states in hopes of developing a funding mechanism that would work in New York. One model that bears looking at, they say, is a voluntary vehicle registration fee. Montana has a state parks fee of $4 people pay when they register a vehicle. Drivers can waive the fee by filling out an additional form, but few choose to opt out. In October, Michigan began offering residents an optional $10 annual "recreation passport" in addition to the vehicle registration fee. The passport gives free access to all state parks, recreation areas and boat launches.

Washington, D.C. took another approach last January when it became the first place in the U.S. to establish a plastic and paper shopping bag fee. The nickel per bag fee raised $1.1 million in the first half year toward efforts to clean up the Anacostia River and dramatically curtailed plastic bag use.

Engelbright said that he would like to see the new administration's budget presentation include supplementary revenue sources such as these. "If we did something like plastic grocery sacks at a penny apiece, and a motor vehicle registration fee and made them both declinable, it could bring in between $60 and $100 million a year," he said. "The interesting thing about the Montana model is, when they made it voluntary and kept the fee nominal, participation was somewhere north of 90 percent."

Another way to support the parks, Engelbright said, is by encouraging the creation of highly professional nonprofit organizations supporting individual state parks. He cited the conservancies and friends groups that turned around Central Park and other New York City parks neglected during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Cuomo placed a strong emphasis on this approach in his environmental agenda.

Encouraging park partnerships and raising private contributions is also one of the goals of the newly formed Alliance for New York State Parks, which itself operates as a public-private partnership under the auspices of the nonprofit Open Space Institute.

Private funding can only go so far. It has become more controversial in New York City, where opponents charge that an increasing reliance on nonprofit park partners and private donations has led to reduced public access and oversight. But Kulleseid noted that the state park system always has had significant contributions from the private sector, going back to the early donations of property for parkland by prominent New York families.

Park supporters are heartened by the Cuomo campaign pledge to keep parks open. They are waiting to see what solutions he offers.

"I'm hopeful that the new administration takes a look at the outcry that happened last year, understands that parks are an economic driver rather than a drain, and has a different approach," said former parks commissioner Carol Ash in a television interview. Ash resigned as commissioner in October and now serves as an advisor to the alliance.

With the state facing years of continuing budget deficits and Cuomo determined not to raise taxes, the challenge is enormous. But in hard times, people need parks more than ever. And, as advocates point out, the state can't balance the budget with further cuts to an agency that represents just a tenth of a percent of the total budget.

"New York has one of the finest state park systems in the country," said Kulleseid. "What we do here is going to have implications everywhere."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Creating Open Space Takes Politics and Planning

high line
Photo by zinetv
Twenty years ago who would have imagined that an abandoned rail line in lower Manhattan would become one of the city's most prized parks?

In the 1970s, who could have predicted that in 2010, New Yorkers would take yoga classes on a lush lawn in Bryant Park, enjoy a lunch break in the middle of Broadway or bike to work along the Hudson River? With the restoration of so many parks and the creation of new ones like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, outdoor public spaces have become central to life in New York City in a way that hardly could have been imagined just a few decades ago.

A similar shift has happened around the country, from Atlanta to Chicago to Portland, Ore., paralleling the reversal of cities' fortunes over the past few decades. "Parks are back on the public agenda," writes park expert Peter Harnik in his new book, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, which explores how to take advantage of this opportunity to weave more green into the urban grid.

Drawing on research into American city park systems by the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land, which he directs, Harnik shows how cities have created new parks despite formidable obstacles: lack of space; a shortage of money and conflicting priorities for spending it; disagreements over what to build and where it should go; and resistance to change by everyone from mothers wary of letting anyone other than students use school playgrounds to stormwater engineers unfamiliar with green infrastructure.

As the Bloomberg administration begins to gather public input for updating PlaNYC 2030, the city's sustainability plan, which calls for increasing open space, there are many lessons and ideas to be drawn from this optimistic book.

The Importance of Planning

According to Harnik, setting one abstract standard for how much parkland cities should have for a given population does not work for real cities. Every city needs to find its own balance between green space and the other elements that bring them to life, such as museums, theaters, restaurants, shopping and architecture. Even in crowded cities, he notes, some parks are underutilized. More important than simply opening up more space is creating the types of parks people want, in the places where they are most needed.

The key to success is a fair, inclusive and transparent master planning process based on an assessment and analysis of current conditions, needs, benefits and public interest and willingness to pay. "It doesn’t do any good to have an open process for soliciting input if the process for making decisions is then secretive, biased or preordained," he writes. The first half of Urban Green covers in detail how a successful planning process works.

To see park plans through to completion, a timeline and budget must be an essential part of the process, Harnik cautions. "The budget -- and even the potential opposition aroused by the budget -- is what often serves to motivate, unify and strengthen pro-park activists."

He cites Pittsburgh, where a $20 million plan to restore Schenley Park gathered dust because Mayor Sophie Masloff feared opposition from voters concerned about taxes and spending, especially in light of the city's financial problems. But when the next mayor, Tom Murphy, reopened the discussion, it sparked tremendous public activity that resulted not only in an improved park, but also the formation of private partnerships and advocacy groups to support the expansion of parks and trails in the city.

The worst economy since the Great Depression might not seem like a propitious time to build new parks. But Urban Green includes examples of successful projects costing tens of millions of dollars for which "there was no money" at the outset. Voter surveys show that people in both liberal and conservative areas are willing to pay higher taxes for parks and land conservation. In 2008, ballot measures for creating and restoring parks and preserving open space passed in Charlotte, Tampa, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, Santa Fe and scores of other cities, towns and counties.

Park Politics

Harnik emphasizes the importance of politics in creating a great urban park system -- "politics based on the muscle of grassroots supporters, the brains of sophisticated leadership, and the nerves of elected politicians who know when to stand firm and when to compromise."

It is generally agreed that in Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wrote the preface to this book, New York has a leader who understands the importance of parks and public space to the city's economic and environmental sustainability (and to the health and well-being of its citizens). He has made creating new open space and putting a park within 10 minutes of every resident a major goal of PlaNYC 2030.

However laudable, though, the plan emerged largely from the top down, without the goals and ideas for parks and public space emerging from neighborhoods and reflecting their residents' needs and desires. In creating the sustainability plan, the Bloomberg administration met with more than 150 organizations and solicited public input, but it did not undertake a true master planning process.

In an effort to help communities throughout the city fill this gap, the citywide parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks recently created its own Open Space Index, which sets flexible targets for different types of open space in neighborhoods based on extensive research and widely accepted best practices. The organization hopes that communities will use the index to determine and advocate for their own park and recreation goals, according to Cheryl Huber, deputy director of New Yorkers for Parks.

Using the index, New Yorkers for Parks conducted a pilot study on the Lower East Side to assess current open space and recreational options. The group then met with community stakeholders to present the results, get feedback, establish priorities and develop a strategy to gain the agreed upon improvements. With funds from Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, the organization will use the index to guide the creation of a parks agenda in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Ideas from All Over

Finding space for parks is one of the biggest challenges in built-out urban areas where the price of rare empty lots is high. The second half of Urban Green examines numerous possible solutions to this dilemma from cities around the country including New York. The ideas range from low-tech community gardens to complex engineering projects like decking over highways and reservoirs.

A great many of these ideas for squeezing in park access already are being put to the test in New York City as part of PlaNYC 2030 (and even before that), such as turning underused streets into public plazas, installing lighting to make playing fields usable at night, making the former Fresh Kills landfill into a park and opening schoolyards to the community.

Former industrial sites offer some of the best opportunities to create a significant amount of new parkland and revitalize city centers at the same time. "As seeds for regrowth, parks are key," Harnik writes. "But they must be reserved, designed and placed in advance of the built environment that will surround them," which, he notes, doesn't come naturally in this country -- or, one might add, in New York City. The city's development-driven culture has led to missed opportunities to create large areas of new parkland around which housing and commerce can grow.

One example is the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where an arena and 16 apartment towers are being built partly on a deck covering the Metropolitan Transportation Authority railyards. The green space between the apartment buildings is slated to be added last, leading many to fear it will never exist. And even if the project and its parks are completed as planned, a neighborhood with a severe shortage of parks and sports fields will end up with a slightly lower ratio of parkland to resident than it now has.

Harnik's book inspires a momentary fantasy of what downtown Brooklyn might have looked like with a new central green space -- one that could have been funded with part of the nearly $300 million subsidy the city and state provided for the arena. A park might even have generated a greater economic return than the arena.

Updating the Sustainability Plan

On Earth Day this year, Bloomberg announced that his administration would begin updating PlaNYC and invited New Yorkers to send in their suggestions. Public meetings will be held in the fall, but are not yet scheduled, said Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post.

What's next for New York City? To preserve all of our remaining unprotected natural areas, such as Pouch Camp in the heart of the Staten Island Greenbelt? Create an aerial system of parks on the rooftops? Expand and make permanent a network of community gardens and farms and teach children to garden in schoolyards, to bring fresh and healthy food into low-income communities? Not very likely. But, then again, what were the odds of creating a stunning park on an old rail line that adjacent property owners wanted to tear down?

Reducing dependence on the automobile and reversing land-use patterns that consume forests and farms at an alarming rate will be essential in addressing global warming and meeting the other environmental challenges of the 21st century. Strengthening and creating compact urban cores is an important piece of the puzzle. Great park systems can help create the kind of cities people will want to live in. Urban Green shows that, when the political will is there, parks will follow. Who knows what seemingly impossible green spaces New Yorkers will be enjoying in 2030?

On Tuesday, July 27, the New York City Parks Department is presenting a talk by author Peter Harnik on Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. It will take place in the Arsenal in Central Park at 6 p.m.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

Pitting Parks Against Open Space

Hudson river park
A view from Hudson River Park, one of several city parks that received money from the state Environmental Protection Fund.

Singling out the state parks and environment for symbolic belt-tightening, Gov. David Paterson last month pressured the state legislature into accepting steep and disproportionate cuts to conservation funding in exchange for reopening 55 shuttered parks and historic sites in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

With the budget two months late and negotiations stalled, the governor chose an area representing less than one quarter of a percent of the total budget to launch his strategy of forcing cuts through temporary budget extender bills needed to keep the state operating.

In a move that has troubling implications for the future of the city and state's environment, legislators were cornered into choosing between two programs that have broad public support -- the state parks and the l Environmental Protection Fund, the state's main source of capital expenditures for open space and farmland preservation, parks and recreation, historic preservation, waterfront revitalization and recycling.

"There is no free lunch," Paterson said in a press release. "If legislators want to fully fund the parks, that money must come from a real source."

The closure of parks earlier in the spring for the first time in New York's history raised a huge outcry among constituents who are using state parks in greater numbers than ever (Memorial Day weekend visits were up 17 percent from last year) and from upstate towns that depend on park-related tourism revenue.

Funded by the Fund

The Environmental Protection Fund, which gets most of its revenue from the real estate transfer tax, also has tremendous constituent support, said Assemblymember Robert K. Sweeney of Suffolk County, who chairs the committee on environmental conservation.

New York City has received more than $200 million from the fund over the past decade and a half to help protect some of its last tracts of open space, build parks and trails such as Hudson River Park, the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, the Harlem River Greenway and the Bronx River greenway, and to restore Jamaica Bay's disappearing wetlands. The Environmental Protection Fund has preserved land upstate around the city's reservoirs as well as farms that supply locally grown produce.

Over the past several years, the state has raided the fund of $500 million of unspent money that was earmarked for pending projects. With this year's cut of 37 percent, the fund will have little money left for new efforts, including a proposed conservation easement on Pouch Camp in the heart of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The 143-acre Boy Scout camp may be sold for development unless the funds can be found to preserve it.

"Opening parks is great, but doing so at the expense of our other natural resources is a violation of the public's trust," said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Out of Context

Determining these two parts of the budget in a vacuum has deprived the public and legislators of the opportunity to consider priorities in the context of the larger budget and to weigh spending on parks and the environment against the economic returns and savings. Parks and conservation are often considered a luxury -- a view Paterson apparently shares -- but, to the contrary, investing in the environment has been shown to bring significant economic benefits.

One recent analysis from New Jersey found that every dollar invested in a bond measure for conservation would return $10 in economic benefits such as farm and fish products, outdoor recreation and ecosystem services such as flood prevention.

Yet the state routinely allocates an amount almost equivalent to this year's entire Environmental Protection Fund appropriation to individual brick and mortar projects whose benefits flow primarily to a few large corporations or developers, such as $104 million for infrastructure for one private sports arena at Atlantic Yards and $63 million to subsidize parking garages for the benefit of the privately owned New York Yankees.

And, like so many decisions that led the state into the current budget mess, skimping on the environment trades savings now for much higher costs in the future. It is far less expensive to protect open space around watersheds, for example, than to build the costly infrastructure needed to treat water once it's contaminated.

By cutting appropriations for open space and farmland preservation, the state will also forfeit significant federal and local matching funds and miss out on the current buyer's market for land acquisition.

Hitting Conservation Hard

The final agreement on parks reached late in May sliced $78 million from last year's Environmental Protection Fund funding of $212 million. This leaves the fund with $134 million -- less than half of the $300 million per year it was supposed to reach by 2010 under the 2007 Environmental Protection Fund Enhancement Act.

Land conservation took the largest hit. Funds for open space were reduced from $58.9 million to $17.6 million, although legislators overturned the governor's moratorium on land acquisition and kept the program alive. The agreement cut farmland preservation from $22 million to $10.7 million.

One bright spot for parks was an increase, to $16 million from $5 million last year, for stewardship (such as restoring habitat, improving safety and rehabilitating infrastructure) and access to state parks and natural areas. This reflects Paterson's positionthat rather than acquiring new land the state should take care of what it already owns.

The legislation, however, pared funding for municipal parks by a third, largely by decreasing spending on inner city and underserved areas and reducing appropriations to the Hudson River Park from $6 million to $3 million. "The deal benefits state parks but is pretty injurious to the municipal parks program," said Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates, a private watchdog group.

Waterfront revitalization received half of the previous year's amount. Zoos, botanic gardens and aquariums, however, were spared, and remain at the same funding level as last year, $9 million.

Legislators claimed some victories, including preventing the use of actual Environmental Protection funds for parks operating expenses as well as for $5 million of Forest Preserve payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs). Although it might seem logical to pay for these programs out of a fund for the environment, advocates say it would have set a dangerous precedent.

"I had a terrible vision that it would be $5 million this year, $10 million the next year, and pretty soon the entire EPF would be Forest Preserve PILOTs and agency management," said Assemblymember Sweeney.

The governor sweetened the deal for legislators who opposed cutting the fund by throwing in long-sought legislation mandating recycling of electronic equipment, with $4 million in new fees dedicated to the Environmental Protection Fund.

The Future of the EPF

The Environmental Protection Fund was created to provide a reliable source of funding, in good times and bad, to protect the state's environment and public health. Legislation establishing the fund noted that "the preservation, enhancement, restoration, improvement and stewardship of the state's environment are among the government's most fundamental obligations."

Although the Environmental Protection Fund is supposedly dedicated money for the environment, over the years the governor and legislature have treated it as a handy source of cash to plug budget holes, both through "sweeps" of unspent funds and reductions in annual appropriations.

"Money that was supposed to be waiting in the account was removed, so it creates a backlog. It's getting to the point where we are using current year appropriations for projects initiated in past years. We are starting to look backward instead of to the future," said Jessica Ottney, director of state government relations for The Nature Conservancy in New York.

"The ability of the Environmental Protection Fund to function properly requires a commitment on the part of both houses and the governor, and right now the governor part of the equation is missing," said Sweeney.

Even the fund's 2008 high-water mark of $250 million fell far short of what other, less populous states have dedicated to preserving open space and creating parks per capita. Last year, New Jersey voters approved a two-year $400 million conservation bond. In 2008, the citizens of Minnesota passed a three-eighths of a cent sales tax surcharge for land and water conservation, parks and the arts that is expected to raise $290 million this year.

The crushing budget deficit, the disarray of the state government, and this year's disproportionate cut to the Environmental Protection Fund do not bode well for New York state's parks, open space, farmland and water supplies.

Yet, as the enormous reaction to closing the parks demonstrated, the public cares deeply about parks, open space and protecting the environment. "All the polling that we've done in New York state shows that voters understand the benefits of these funds and are consistently willing to contribute through whatever funding mechanism the polls suggest toward public investment in open space and clean water protection," said Ottney. "We've seen those be consistent throughout this economic decline."

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.

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