State Parks’ Abundant ‘Streams’ Of Revenue For New Yorkers

A Legislative Column by Andrew Raia (R,I,C-East Northport)
March 5, 2010

“Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” As the Paterson administration embarks on its plan to close or scale back services at 55 parks and historic sites around the state, including six in Long Island, it’s instructive to recall the words of the nation’s first great conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a sportsman who carried on a lifelong love affair with the outdoors; the young Teddy collected a menagerie of animals and specimens at his Long Island home, while President Roosevelt protected more land than any other chief executive before or since. Still, the man who started the national parks system along with his chief of the first United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, was no sentimentalist.

Roosevelt understood intuitively that a nation as far-flung and geographically various as our own required economic vitality to pay for its environmental largesse. That’s why he pursued conservation with a nationalist’s spirit, transforming America into an emerging international political and economic superpower even as huge tracts of unspoiled land were set aside for federal protection. In our current fiscal emergency we must act creatively to spur development at our state parks until, and after, the economy recovers and budgetary red ink dries up. As a lifelong sportsmen and conservation supporter, I am calling upon the leadership in Albany to free the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) to work cooperatively with their municipalities and third parties in order to enhance the economic activity our state parks system already produces.

On March 3, I participated in a press conference at the Capitol calling on the governor’s office to reverse his $20 million cut to the OPRHP, a cut which led to the closures announcement. The parks budget has already been slashed by 40 percent over the last two years; Long Island’s parks should not have to suffer just because statewide spending has increased every year in the last decade. Furthermore, $20 million in savings within a $134 billion proposed state budget will not reverse our fiscal decline or prevent years of unfunded liabilities ahead. My colleagues and I in the Assembly laid out a budget reform plan earlier this year with savings in the billions: consolidating state agencies, finally collecting cigarette taxes on American Indian reservation lands, combating Medicaid fraud and waste, and eliminating or downsizing state commissions.

Economic development in state parks will work because this land already provides New York with a progressive return on its investment. As an example, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst offered these figures from its 2009 study: for every one dollar invested by the state in parkland, five dollars are returned in state and local revenue. People use campsites, buy gasoline, pay for hunting and fishing licenses, shop for groceries and supplies – these disparate individual economic activities have a cumulative effect: $1.9 billion statewide, every year, according to UMASS Amherst. My goal is to harness the economic potential of parks and recreational areas so that new income streams develop, on-site. These new revenue sources could benefit parks and the people they serve in both downturns and economically flush times. With no additional liability costs and by utilizing existing spaces such as parking areas, state parks could transform their depreciating assets – the physical land that taxes already cover – and convert them into new revenue generators. Motor sports, concerts, hunting and fishing outdoor expos: these are just some of the third-party attractions which could draw locals and tourists alike to state parks.

Environmental concerns, including the use of impact statements for development projects, would not be necessary, since events would in general be confined to public spaces already approved by the state and subject to the same oversight standards. New York’s municipalities allow any car, belching gas and spilling oil, to use state parks and beaches. Why are we permitting this while drawing an artificial red line restricting private entities willing to add to local economies by expanding parkland activities? The Sports Car Club of America, a nationally recognized motor-sports organization with a Northeast division that includes New York, is an attractive franchise with a built-in fan base thus far barred from utilizing available parkland spaces. Still, the governor would raid $5 billion from our valuable Environmental Protection Fund rather than explore creative economic development options.

Never has a state park closed in New York due to economic circumstances. Not during the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s, and all the recessions in between – never. Yet if nothing is done to save our 213 state parks and recreation areas nearly half will close or lose many of their services by the start of the new fiscal year, April 1. Hard-working families already pay taxes to support parks and historic sites, and in the long fiscal trough we currently find ourselves these close-to-home getaways are the only vacations many Long Islanders will be able to afford. It’s time to tap new revenue sources for these existing assets, and open them up to greater third-party participation which will sustain them financially through the tough times ahead. We need creativity, not cuts. Take it from our region’s greatest preservationist-sportsman: Conservation means development, too.