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Natural Disaster

The looming budget vote will determine the fate of 55 state parks and historic sites facing closure as a consequence of Gov. David Paterson’s proposed budget cuts. We could easily—and sincerely—advocate for the countless intangible values of our park system. But those arguments have already been made by the thousands. Impassioned blog posts, letters, phone calls, petitions and protesters have been streaming in from across the state since last month’s controversial announcement: Whether for history or heritage, sport or science, celebration or solitude, these parks matter.

Unfortunately, the people of New York are crying into the chasm of an $8.2 billion budget deficit. “New York,” said Paterson in statement on the park closures, “faces an historic fiscal crisis of unprecedented magnitude. It has demanded many difficult but necessary decisions to help ensure the fiscal integrity of our state.” Desperate times, after all, call for desperate measures.

We might accept that closing a quarter of the parks and historic sites that New York has designated as her most precious treasures is a necessary fallout of the economic crisis, except for one thing: It doesn’t make financial sense.

The plan outlined by Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation would close 41 parks and 14 historic sites and reduce services at 24 other locations, purportedly saving the state $6.3 million.

However, according to the findings of a 2009 study conducted for Parks & Trails New York by the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the money saved from the closures—less than eight hundredths of a percent of the overall deficit—would cost the state in the long run.

The PERI study, titled, ironically, “The New York State Park System: An Economic Asset to New York State,” compared public spending on state parks to spending by park visitors. “Clearly,” the 36-page report reads, “the impact of the State Park System on New York’s economy is sizeable: The benefits exceed the direct costs of maintaining the state parks many times over.” In fact, according to the study, every dollar spent on the park system generates $5 in income through sales, business and income taxes. “The state parks produce about $1.9 billion in annual sales for private businesses in the areas around the park,” the report states. And approximately 40 percent of that visitor spending comes from visitors who live outside the areas where the parks are located.

To date, the plan merely presents a list of park closings, not an explanation of what “closing” a state park actually means. John Boyd Thacher State Park—that gem in the Helderbergs—has a public highway running through it. According to one parks representative, closing a park probably means little more than ending spending on the infrastructure and security. The potential risks to the public and liabilities for the state are inestimable. The cost of reopening facilities that have been neglected, even for a year, likely would be astronomical.

“We cannot mortgage our state’s financial future through further gimmicks or avoidance behavior,” Paterson’s statement on the park closings continues. And yet, while Paterson advocates for generating revenue and promoting statewide heath through the so-called “fat tax” on sugary beverages and further hikes in cigarette taxes, he is simultaneously limiting New Yorkers’ access to affordable and enjoyable exercise.

The park closures make so little sense that we figured it must be an empty threat, a political bargaining chip.

But OPRHP is already refunding campsite reservation fees to the many families who had already planned summer vacations at parks now on the chopping block.

Since the recent economic nosedive, park attendance has been consistently on the rise. Last year the state parks drew a record-setting 56 million visitors. Giving up that revenue is unwarranted. Denying the public the best New York has to offer while historic sites and park facilities fall to ruin is unconscionable.

“This budget is a blueprint for a stronger, healthier, and more fiscally responsible New York.” Paterson wrote in a letter to New Yorkers accompanying his budget proposal. “The only way we can emerge from this crisis is through shared sacrifice.”

The governor is right. It’s time for a fiscally responsible New York. Paterson announced this week that the April 1 budget deadline most likely will not be met. The cost, in interest, of another late budget could pay for all of our parks. And the average annual cost of operating the state Legislature and all its offices is approximately $1 million per representative. Perhaps it is time that they, and their staffs, share the sacrifices.

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