Schenectady County

Lawmakers vow to fight for local parks

Local lawmakers are hearing from their unhappy constituents about the proposed closure of 55 state p

Local lawmakers are hearing from their unhappy constituents about the proposed closure of 55 state parks and historic sites after the hit list of parks was released Friday.

“I’ve gotten letters; I’ve gotten e-mails; I’ve gotten phone calls from all over saying, ‘Don’t close,’ ” said Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam.

State Sen. Neil Breslin thinks people should be upset about the proposed closure of John Boyd Thacher State Park in his district.

He and Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, have put together a petition urging the governor to take Thacher off the list.

“I think it’s very inexpensive to run, and I think it’s very important to the lives of people of all socioeconomic strata,” Breslin said.

Breslin has put Thacher on a priority list to be restored.

“There’s a lot of sentimentality. A lot of families have grown up, as I have, with Thacher Park.”

That sentimentality was echoed throughout the Capital Region this week as the news sank in that 55 state parks and historic sites face closure during the 2010-11 fiscal year, including Johnson Hall in Johnstown, Schoharie Crossing in Fort Hunter, the Schuyler Mansion Historic Site in Albany, Max V. Shaul State Park in Schoharie County, John Brown Farm Historic Site in Essex County and three sites in Rensselaer County: Bennington Battlefield State Park, Hudson River Islands State Park and Schodack Island State Park.

“It’s a nice place, and people come all the time,” said Jane Button, treasurer of Friends of Schoharie Crossing. “I don’t know how they can close it off.”

The site likely wouldn’t be barricaded, but people wouldn’t have the educational interpreters to help them understand how the aqueduct worked.

“You really do need somebody to help you,” Button said. Inside the building, pictures and models show how it worked.

She said the Friends group is encouraging fans of the historic site to write letters and call local lawmakers to keep historic interpreters at the site.

Across the region, friends of other state parks and historic sites are recommending the same thing.

“What we’ve tried to do is get as many people as we can to write and call,” said Larry Lawrence, chairman of the John Brown Society in New York City, who is concerned about the proposed closing of the John Brown Farm. “I’m personally optimistic that we can work this out.”

This is a war being waged by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

By Monday, the New York State Parks’ Facebook page was full of comments denouncing the cuts, some blaming the parks office and others the governor.

Tens of thousands of people have joined various Facebook groups opposing the closing of Thacher Park.

The state will save $6.3 million by closing the sites and making service cuts to 24 other parks.

“We’re talking about such a pitiful amount of money,” Lawrence said.

“I wouldn’t even call it penny wise and pound foolish. I would call it ‘fraction of a penny’ wise and pound foolish.”

Cuts are being made to every state agency to bridge an $8.2 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year, which starts in April.

But critics questioned whether the cuts would really save much money, since permanent parks employees would be moved from the closed parks to other sites.

Seasonal workers at the affected parks would lose their jobs, so the state would save money on those wages, mostly lifeguards and lawn maintenance workers, said Dan Keefe, state parks’ spokesman.

The statewide system has about 2,000 permanent employees and swells to 5,000 in the summers, he said.

The park system also would save money by not paying for utilities at the buildings or buying materials and supplies or arranging for garbage removal at the affected parks and historic sites, he said. Some maintenance workers would remain at the closed parks, however.

“This is — we are hoping, at least — a temporary situation to address the fiscal crisis,” Keefe said.

He said the state has no plans to sell the historic artifacts at the state historic sites and will take steps to protect them.

Some local lawmakers said they will try to get some of the area parks off the list.

Amedore said the parks generate money, draw tourists and stimulate the economy.

“They give the taxpayers that little bit of return that they like to use to relax or go and visit.”

State Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, said he will fight for all the parks in the area.

“I don’t view my world with boundaries. I represent the Capital Region,” McDonald said.

He said he wants to ensure that budget cuts — for state parks, school aid and everything else — do not disproportionately affect upstate.

“This is going to be a very difficult budget, and it’s going to take a long time, and there’s probably going to be very short tempers throughout it.”

Lower income families, especially, rely on state parks for recreation because they can’t afford to travel.

“My family never took vacations,” the Troy native said. “We didn’t have any money. So what we did is visited parks.”

State Sen. James L. Seward, R-Oneonta, criticized a “bad budget” last year that produced this year’s deficit.

“We need to look at innovative tactics to keep these parks open, possibly through volunteer staffing or other cost reductions. I expect this discussion to continue in the coming weeks as we work toward a final state budget.”

His district includes Max V. Shaul State Park, a campground in Schoharie County.

Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said the proposed closure of John Brown Farm Historic Site in Essex County wouldn’t keep people from visiting the farm, although they wouldn’t be able to tour the cottage.

Educational signs would explain the historical significance of the site, Little said.

“The people that visit would probably miss having someone to explain and let them into the cottage,” she said. “People will still be able to go there. That won’t be an issue.”

Brown lived at the farm before his raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and his body is buried there.

Earlier, local officials proposed taking over the farm if the state is going to close it.

Although spared from the closure list now, the Victoria Pool at Saratoga Spa State Park is threatened if the state Legislature denies the state park system use of $5 million in capital funds for operating expenditures this year.

The Save the Victoria Pool Society, formed several years ago to raise money to renovate the pool, is leading the effort to make sure the pool stays open no matter what.

As of late Monday, more than 50 people had signed an online petition for the pool.

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