NY State Parks threatened by Cuomo Administration

A Gannett reporter wrote former acting state parks commissioner Andy Beers testified at a budget hearing that “no parks closures are planned for this year”. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also said the same thing. If you believe the Governor and former Acting Commissioner, then you are like many unsuspecting tourists who fell for George C. Parker’s con that he could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Unlike former Governor Paterson who was upfront in proposing the closure of 55 State Parks and State Historic Sites and ultimately backed off and kept the parks and historic sites open, the current administration is pulling an apparent flimflam when it claims the State Parks agency is going to make budget cuts without closing any of its parks and historic sites.

In fact, the Herkimer Historic Site home has already been closed by the State Parks agency. Hiding their intention behind the fine sounding notion of “partnership” the State Park agency has leased three state parks to municipalities: Woodlawn Beach State Park in the Town of Hamburg, Joseph Davis State Park in the Town of Lewiston and Knox Farm. It has been reported that “state officials said they are either seeking private operators or working with local governments to run facilities”. A rumor I heard is that all 55 State Parks and Historic Sites identified originally by former Governor Paterson are likely to be transferred by the State.

Let us look closely at Joseph Davis State Park to see what is really happening.

State law recognizes state parks “contain unique and irreplaceable natural, ecological, historic, cultural and recreational resources”. 220 of the 357 acres of Davis State Park have increasingly rare undeveloped early succession vegetation. 230 acres of the Park is designated a Bird Conservation Area. The Park is subject of a Master Plan that states: “Early succession habitat is transitional in nature and decreasing statewide. As a result, population of some bird species preferring this habitat are declining in New York State….As a State Park, habitat at Joseph Davis State Park can be better protected and managed for the benefit of birds and wildlife than property subject to development by the private sector.” It is easy to see why Davis State Park should be a state park managed by a conservation oriented State Parks agency. State park management should begin with stewardship and a parks agency must be skilled and dedicated to stewardship.

Yet, the State Parks agency has leased Joseph Davis State Park to the Town of Lewiston and, I should add, without review and approval of this contract for transfer of valuable state resources by the State Comptroller and State Attorney General or approval by the state legislature as required by the public trust doctrine.

The Davis State Park contract provides that State Parks must approve any development and one may think after reading the contract that the Town of Lewiston is to operate the State Park as if it was under the control of the State Park Agency. Yet, look closely at the contract and you see it doesn’t highlight the Davis State Park Master Plan, a key to the Park’s proper management, and it also fails to mention the requirement that the state legislature must approve any discontinuance of use of the Park under the public trust doctrine.

According to the Niagara-Gazette, the Town of Lewiston has received “preliminary plans to build a rustic 48-room hotel and a 250-person conference center in the heart of the now town-owned park”. (Emphasis added) Further in the article its says, “Town Supervisor Steve Reiter said the town is forming a corporation, which will include one member nominated by each town board member, to make decisions pertaining to the future of Joseph Davis State Park, including a contract that would allow for a hotel and conference center to be built”. This doesn’t sound promising for an ecologically sensitive state park or any state park.

(On April, 13, 2011, 4 days after this blog was first posted and many weeks after State Parks leared of the development interest of the Town of Lewiston, the State Parks Deputy Commissioner for Operations wrote to the Town of Lewiston Supervisor the following:

“We at State Parks certainly understand the Town’s enthusiasm in its new role as operator of the Park under our Cooperative Operation & Maintenance Agreement. However, as you have acknowledged, it is vitally important that consideration of any potential new development of the Park be undertaken in close consultation with State Parks. In the future, we expect the Town will communicate with State Parks prior to introducing to the public any new development concepts and proposals.

In the interest of maintaining a cooperative and collaborative relationship in the future, we request that the Town carefully review the terms and conditions of the Cooperative Agreement, which requires that the Town’s operations and use of the Park must be consistent with State Parks’ statutes, regulations, policies, and practices.” (these include the final master plan)

 Let me identify what is wrong with what the State Parks Agency is doing and why it is a flimflam that will destroy a significant portion New York’s great and first in the nation state park system.

1. Most of our state parks were created because of their scenic, ecological, historic and heritage importance. Their resources require skilled and committed conservation stewardship if these resources are to survive for future generations. Most municipalities and nonprofit organizations (with the exception of well endowed organizations like the Central Park Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and the Olana Partnership) do not have the skill set or capacity for this standard of stewardship.
2. Public assets like our State Parks should be protected by the State Comptroller, the State Attorney General, master planning and doctrines like the Public Trust Doctrine all of which our State Parks Agency has so far ignored when it came to leasing the aforementioned state parks like Joseph Davis and closing the Herkimer historic house.
3. If up to 50 or more state parks and historic sites are in the cross hair for the State Parks Agency to hand off to municipalities or nonprofit organizations with minimal capacity for stewardship and/or, like the Lewiston Town Board, with designs on inconsistent development. Doesn’t transparency call for a public conversation on what the State administration really wants to do and how it can find resources to protect our state park assets?

When New York created its state park system there was a public debate. One side of the debate believed a state park should be created every 20 miles along Route 20, the east-west route across the State. The other side, led by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, argued that you should only establish a state park you when you find it. This meant that state parks should be unique scenic, natural or historic places like Niagara Falls, Letchworth (the Grand Canyon of the East), Schuyler Mansion, Johnson Hall and the Heldeberg escarpment). For the most part, advocates for state parks to be unique, special places prevailed across the State and most of our state parks like Joseph Davis are places that are special and must be protected. Former Governor Mario Cuomo said at a parks conference in 1991 that while the state’s financial resources have diminished “our responsibility to pass our historic and natural treasures to our children has not”.

The tension between the two sides of the State Park mission, recreation and protection, operates to endanger the protection of State Park resources for future generations. In fact, what is happening now at our State Parks Agency aided and abetted by a newly established advocacy Alliance for New York State Parks is posing a threat to sacrifice many of our state park and historic sites (like Joseph Davis), historic sites like the Herkimer House and New York’s outstanding heritage area system (real partnership parks) for the sake of rehabilitating gray and recreationally related infrastructure only at some state parks.

The State Park and Historic Site near you in New York and the State’s great park and conservation legacy from leaders like Frederick Law Olmsted, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklyn Delano Roosevelt are endangered. The threat that arose under former Governor Paterson was beaten back, but don’t think it was fully defeated. The New York’s State Park Agency continues to ignore its responsibilities to state heritage areas (the latest generation of New York’s great park tradition) and is actively seeking to hand off many state parks with significant scenic, ecological and heritage resources to so-called partners without stewardship capacity.

Beware, it is not what the Governor and State Parks Commissioner say, it is what they are doing that is the threat. State Parks appears to has spoken up to protect Joseph Davis (perhaps in response to this column), but the Historic Herkimer House remains closed and State Parks has not clearly explained how municipalities have the expertise to operate and steward the resources of State Parks.


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2 Responses to “NY State Parks threatened by Cuomo Administration”

  1. Steven G. Poyzer Says:

    There is absolutely no reason why any state parks or recreation areas need be shut down, even if the state can’t fund them. Warren Meyers of Recreation Resource Management Inc. leases parklands all across the nation in the various states and operates, maintains and staffs them while turning a profit and employing people with a private sector solution while providing a revenue stream for the state. Closing parklands is not a solution, but privatization is.

  2. Robert Gallucci Says:

    the state should at least in niagara county, give all of the parks to the province of ontario. at least then we will have a chance to be as preserved as well funded and as wonderfull as our canadian neighbors…

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