Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dave Gibson: Park Priorities, Budgets Out Of Whack

MRP-Snowmobile-Trail-3During my first Adirondack conservation meeting, in January of 1987, one of the top issues discussed was the pressure the Forest Preserve was under due to the limited State budgets and loss of DEC staff personnel.

How were the hundreds of miles of state’s Forest Preserve boundaries to be surveyed and marked? How were the “forever wild” natural resources on the Forest Preserve to be properly cared for by so few foresters and rangers? Someone on my board of directors (I was still a greenhorn) had invited DEC Lands and Forests Director Robert Bathrick to our meeting to discuss the problem he faced caring for the Forest Preserve and more.

My board set the right, collegial tone: that these were shared problems; we all owned an undivided deed to the Forest Preserve, and therefore advocates like us needed good information in order to intelligently weigh in as much as possible – in concert with the DEC. After all, DEC was and still is the public’s custodian for the Forest Preserve, acting in the public’s interest.

Not that we didn’t question DEC’s choice of priorities even 29 years ago. Barbara McMartin was among the most active members of the board of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in challenging Bob Bathrick and DEC in its management and budgetary choices and decisions. Even then, Barbara was questioning why DEC paid so little attention to interesting hiking trails on Wild Forest – where most of the trails were designated and routed purely as snowmobile trails. That particular interest of hers accelerated in the following decade.

Back in 1987, there were about 105 Forest Rangers in the field, not counting supervisors and administrators, to patrol and enforce the laws (and mark the boundaries) on maybe 2.8 million acres of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, and maybe half a million acres of State Forests. There were only a few conservation easements back then, maybe 20,000 acres. Let’s say 3.3 million acres in all.

In 2015, there may be five fewer Rangers, about 100 in the field, to patrol and enforce the laws on 4.832 million acres of Forest Preserve (both Adirondack and Catskill Parks), State Forests, and Private Lands under Conservation Easement, or about a 30-35% increase in responsibilities by acreage from 1987. About 85% of the increase comes in the form of private lands protected by a Conservation Easement. These lands have grown from roughly 20,000 acres in 1987 to over 900,000 acres today.

While the land base DEC cares for on our behalf may have grown 35%, the staffing has declined more than 25%. In 1995 there were 225 full time staff working for the Division of Lands and Forests – the Division responsible for the Forest Preserve, State Forests, and Easements. Today there are 158.

Focusing down, in a big part of the Catskills (DEC Region 3) there is one DEC forester, maybe 1 and a half, to write unit management plans for the 300,000 acre Catskill Forest Preserve and supervise the forest tax laws on private land. The work load has tripled while the staff in New Paltz and other regional offices has been cut by more than half.

In the Adirondacks, Region 5 (in Ray Brook) reports show that Lands and Forests staff are down by two-thirds, Fisheries down by half, and Wildlife down by two-thirds over the past 20 years.

The DEC Division of Operations, which oversees much of the work on the Forest Preserve and on the State Campgrounds had 122 personnel in 1995. Today, that division has 50, or a drop off of 60%.

Looking at its operational budget, DEC’s latest budget received less than $800,000 to oversee, care for and manage 4.8 million acres. That’s sixteen cents per acre.

Call any DEC office these days about a natural resource problem in your home area, as I have recently, and you face the reality behind these statistics. A hard working, skeletal staff attempts to do the job and respond to your concerns. DEC natural resource/forest preserve/forest ranger staffing and operating budgets are in deplorable shape. Under these circumstances, DEC staff does a remarkable job and constantly credit the volunteers, private sector and municipal support they receive in the form of labor and finances to keep up with some of the work load.

As Barbara McMartin advocated in 1987, and as Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has just advocated in its Park at a Crossroad report (2015), the public should do two things at once: Push hard in 2016 for DEC’s natural resources budget given the unexpected increase in State tax revenues this year. Urge Governor Cuomo and his budget office to increase the DEC Land and Forests, Forest Ranger, and Natural Resource budgets accordingly.

At the same time, the public ought to question where DEC places its priorities – and who is making those priorities. To build a single snowmobile community connector trail in the Adirondacks (now ongoing in Newcomb-Minerva) is costing us and the DEC a great deal. DEC personnel is reassigned from all over the State to build wider, straighter, flatter routes for groomed snowmobiling, and cutting thousands of trees for each one (these actions also violate the State Land Master Plan and quite possibly the NYS Constitution). One can hazard a guess how much DEC will spend building a new 130-foot steel bridge over the designated “scenic” Cedar River, all to accommodate more powerful, faster snowmobiling (recommended in the latest Essex Chain of Lakes Unit Management Plan). The cost of this one bridge will exceed DEC’s entire Forest Preserve stewardship budget in both Catskill and Adirondack Parks by many times.

There are alternatives ways of investing public dollars in the Forest Preserve that are less problematic and much less expensive than wider, straighter snowmobile routes on the Forest Preserve or steel snowmobile bridges hundreds of feet long which duplicate other bridges nearby. In past Unit Management Plans, DEC used to recommend studies to determine the carrying capacity in a given unit of Wilderness or Wild Forest to find answers to questions such as: where are people creating damage due to overuse or misuse? How fast is that change occurring?  Is it seriously damaging the capacity of the area to withstand such use given the management goals for the area? What are the indicators of the change, how to you measure it, and what management action can be taken to avoid or reduce that damage and restore desired conditions? What monitoring will be done to assure these conditions are maintained?

These studies, known as Limits of Acceptable Change studies, were once recommended by DEC land managers in units that face user pressure and natural resource damage, such as the Indian Lake primitive camping areas, or the St. Regis Canoe area, where many studies have shown deteriorating primitive campsite conditions and declining visitor use satisfaction. This work is rarely undertaken because it is challenging and requires sustained commitment and investment by DEC over a period of years. However, the sums required do not begin to approach those required to span scenic rivers with steel bridges.

Years ago, a few of these studies were performed on major hiking corridors into the High Peaks Wilderness area, with much good result. Spending scarce Forest Preserve dollars on these studies in more areas of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve today would result in cost effective stewardship tomorrow, stewardship more consistent with the wild forest purposes of the Forest Preserve enshrined in our State Constitution.

Photo: A snowmobile bridge being built in the Moose River Plains in 2011.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

11 Responses

  1. Greg M. says:

    Not sure any of this is logical, more pie in the sky dreaming, with the usual environmental digs towards snowmobile trails or anything else that involves humans and the ‘wild’. Of coarse everyone wants more money…

    All businesses and government have to do more with less. There is now far better technology to make people far more efficient. Further, I hardly think easement lands need to be monitored at any significant level compared to forever wild lands. Comparing the two is not fair…but you know that. Same reason why you include easement lands when the statistics benefit the argument, and leave them out when they don’t.

    If this really is a concern, why not suggest that the state stop buying land? After-all that would save millions to funnel into your ‘studies’? That’d be fiscally responsible, but perhaps not align if your goals.

    Can’t have your cake and eat it too. This is not to say the DEC/Rangers/etc jobs are easy, but environmentalists crying to more money for the left hand while the right hand is spending millions, without complaint, is hogwash.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      Easements, at least those open to public recreation are actually more difficult to deal with from a patrol/stewardship standpoint than Forest Preserve. They all have their own specific caveats within the negotiated terms and often specific regulations. Comparing easements and Forest Preserve in terms of work load is fair. They are nearly the same work per acreage, if you will. Easements take a little more time and work load than Forest Preserve per acre.

  2. Paul says:

    I think this really shows that there has to be an alternative way to fund some of these activities. The tax money just isn’t there how long do we have to keep going through this exercise before we admit it that this model is broken. It doesn’t seem to make any sense that people who fish and hunt, or use a snowmobile or motor boat pay all these license and registration fees. Then anyone who wants to hike or paddle a boat w/o a motor and we let them off scott free. How did their special interest groups accomplish this where the others didn’t . Gotta give them credit where it is due. As a hiker and a paddler I am willing to pony up some fees to cover this work. Just like a cough it up for the other activities. Every year that I get a hunting license I always donate to the additional habit funds etc.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      I know this won’t be a popular statement because everyone wants to use the Forest Preserve for their own specific recreational activity but if you are trying to do more with less and still add land, build fewer trails, of all types and classify the new large purchases wilderness. The more remote and interior I go the less problems I see.

  3. John says:

    got it, you’re anti snowmobiling in the Adirondacks! How much money is spent building hiking trails, or how much money is wasted on a scenic train NO ONE WANTS!

    • Bruce says:

      Gee John,

      I’d like to know whom you think “NO ONE” is. Unless I’m mistaken, the response the state received to the question of keep or do away with the train, was strongly for the train, and the compromise puts two eggs in the basket instead of just one.

      Perhaps you’re talking about residents of the AP, who seem to be for more trails. If so, then the reality has to be faced that one reason the original discussion came up in the first place, is that the Park pretty much depends on the influx of outside money for a big chunk of its economy, and wanted to find ways to boost it. It’s already been adequately shown that snowmobiling and hiking/biking trails alone won’t do it. If park residents were satisfied with the state of the park’s economy, the discussion would not have been needed.

  4. George says:

    Have to agree with Paul and Greg. I also concur with the author that DEC is way understaffed and cannot handle adequately the management of the land they administer now.

    Hunters and fishermen have to not only pay for their licenses but also federal excise taxes on items like ammunition and fishing gear. This money is plowed back into improvements for outdoor recreation, money often used by the states. Maybe other outdoor recreation users should contribute.

    As said previously, why should the state keep spending millions on land purchases en easements and instead divert some of the money to funding DEC.

  5. Ryan Finnigan says:

    With DEC staffing levels as low as they are, absolutely no one at the DEC should be in the Forest Preserve cutting down trees by the thousands and constructing permanent roads with heavy machinery to serve a shrinking user group, i.e. snowmobilers. Why is it that a constitutional amendment is not required to construct these permanent roads through our Forest Preserve? As a taxpayer, I demand the right to be allowed a vote as to whether or not the State Constitution should be circumvented in order to legally construct these permanent roads in our Forest Preserve!

  6. Jim says:

    I agree with the author. DEC is severely understaffed and is perpetually asked to do more with less. New lands and projects are politically sexy, while maintenance on existing facilities is all but ignored. I would like to see the new trails and new projects put off and instead spend some meaningful time and energy toward fixing and repairing trails and facilities that are already there.

  7. Boreas says:

    Perhaps instead of the DEC just offering wildlife and habitat stamps when one buys a license, they should also offer people a direct email/phone link to their legislators in Albany to demand better funding for existing budgets and increased staffing. The few stamps I buy won’t pay a salary. Plus, if it is a NYS resource we are trying to protect, taxpayers need to ante-up as well by demanding funding. But I feel it is the shell game that government is playing with diversionary funding that is the cause of the problem, not insufficient taxation.

    • Bruce says:


      In North Carolina, all public hunting lands, including the 1.4 million acres of National Forest are by default “game land.” As such, anyone wishing to hunt on public land is required to buy a game lands use permit, in addition to their regular license fee. There is also a separate fee on top of the regular fishing license for fishing “public mountain trout waters,” including state trout fishing easements across private land. All renewable license fees go directly to the Wildlife Department. There is a separate permit required for certain areas of coastal salt water.

      When I first moved here in ’76, the annual Sportsman “do everything” license was $35 bucks. I don’t know what it is now, because I got a Lifetime Sportsman in ’85.

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