With the coronavirus still in full swing and likely to continue at least through summer, the demands from increased visitors seeking to socially distance in New York’s forest areas will likely continue this year.
That, combined with the continuing environmental challenges put on the state by pollution and the need to immediately address the impacts of climate change, means that now is not the time to shortchange the environment in the upcoming state budget.
The long-term implications of taking the short-sighted route could affect New Yorkers and tje state’s environment well after the virus has been declared under control.
Even with the state facing a budget deficit of $6 billion to $15 billion, a modest increase in funding for environmental projects and staffing will not break the bank.
One area where the state needs to continue to make investment is in the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
According to a recent report from the state comptroller’s office, the DEC has significantly expanded its responsibilities and coverage area over the past decade, while seeing a corresponding 10% decline in funding for agency operations.
Among the challenges faced by the agency, particularly over the past year, has been a marked increase in visitor traffic in the Adirondack Park, the Catskills and other areas overseen by the agency.
Last year, there were 141 state forest rangers statewide responsible for millions of acres of state land.
With more visitors comes a need for more land management to protect forest areas from erosion, trail damage, traffic congestion and other effects of overuse.
The corresponding increase in visitor traffic has highlighted the need for more forest rangers to enforce environmental regulations, conduct search-and-rescue operations, and guide and instruct those who use the trails and waterways.
Despite higher demand, DEC staffing has remained unchanged.
But the need for greater investment in environmental protection isn’t limited to managing hikers and repairing trails.
The agency is also tasked with implementing the state’s sweeping legislation to address climate change, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Climate Smart Communities Program and the Community Risk and Resiliency Act. As well, the DEC oversees $3.9 billion in water quality appropriations and manages programs to mitigate pollution.
With great power comes great responsibility (apologies to Spiderman), and with greater responsibilities comes a greater need for funding.
Without the funding needed to adequately manage and enforce air-quality and water-quality regulations, the environment suffers and the public’s health is put at risk.
In addition to all that responsibility, more than one-third of DEC staff has been tasked with assisting in the coronavirus response. And, oh yeah, a drought has increased the number of wildland fires DEC staff must deal with.
The state needs to invest more money, not less, to protect the environment.
That includes placing the $3 billion bond act on the next available ballot so voters can decide how much investment they’re willing to make. (The governor canceled the bond vote last year in the wake of the pandemic.)
Short-term thinking, even in a fiscal crisis, will create long-term damage.
State lawmakers need to see investment in the DEC and environmental protection not as an indulgence, but as a necessity.