Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Throwing Our State Parks Off A Cliff

As our Legislature continues its President's Week vacation as an a matter of right, and as our Governor announces he'll seek election in his own right, I found myself loathing to discover a perfect reason for not casting my ballot for any of them.

It appears that in order to "save money," Governor Paterson has, behind closed doors, slated a slew of State Parks for closure. Not to diminish the effects of these proposed shut-downs across the state, but rather to illustrate how each closure affects each individual New Yorker, one of these knifings stabbed right at my heart. Albany Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun brought this to my attention this past Sunday in a piece entitled State Parks Make Hit List:

Two lists of possible state park and historic site closures made necessary by Gov. David Paterson's proposed 2010-11 state budget finally have been prepared by senior staff at the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the governor's office.
Say goodbye to the venerable John Boyd Thacher State Park in the Helderbergs, for example, as bizarre as that sounds. At this point, it will take extraordinary measures to save it. Once closed, who knows when it reopens?
Emphasis by me -SP

Cross-Posted on The Albany Project
There's no way to truly appreciate John Boyd Thatcher State Park unless you see it for yourself. Here's about 100 words on the site from the State Parks website:

John Boyd Thacher State Park, is situated along the Helderberg Escarpment, one of the richest fossil-bearing formations in the world. Even as it safeguards six miles of limestone cliff-face, rock-strewn slopes, woodland and open fields, the park provides a marvelous panorama of the Hudson-Mohawk Valleys and the Adirondack and Green Mountains. The park has volleyball courts, playgrounds, ball fields and numerous picnic areas with nine reservable shelters. Interpretive programs are offered year-round, including guided tours of the famous Indian Ladder Trail. There are over twelve additional miles of trails for summer hiking and mountain biking, and winter cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and snowmobiling.

Sounds pretty nifty, right? Take a look at the picture below and tell me that it's not worth ten quoted paragraphs:

Thacher Park Overlook Panorama

Now the LeBrun column goes into greater detail as to how and why this is being set up behind closed doors in the -Butcher's- Governor's office and the -Meat Packing Department- Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. I suggest reading the whole thing, but the main idea is that the first list includes a whole mess of state parks to close and the second list recommends moving some money (about five million bones) from the Environmental Protection Fund in order to save a handful from these sites, which would require approval from the -Cattle Corral- State Legislature. Regarding the thought process and implementation behind all this, LeBrun says it best:

The expression "arbitrary and capricious" comes to mind, not to mention insensitive and ill-considered.

What is utterly dismaying is that these discussions are going on behind very closed doors with no public input.

Sounds about right to me, especially considering the close relationship my community and I have with Thacher Park. Here in the Hilltowns, the park is an emblematic preservation of the escarpment we live on. It's the very thing that separates us from the "flatlanders" down below, the division between suburban and rural in Albany County.

Not only does the park serve thousands of Albany residents in the summer, but Thacher serves as an almost universal place of employment for young folks on The Hill. I can speak for myself on this. A large portion of my high school friends worked there during the summer, saving them a drive down to the 'burbs or the city in order to save money for college. My younger brother did this as many of his friends. It's a huge boon to the local economy, not a drag on the state budget!

I even worked the place for a short while. I saw first-hand how Thacher Park provided accessible and affordable natural recreation for both the urban and rural poor. It made me not mind picking up the trash so much to see the joy on young children's faces when they were able to escape the concrete jungle and stand face-to-face with something like this:

Indian Ladder Trail's Minelot Falls

Not only that, these hills have some of the most unique history in the state. Thacher Park preserves that history in the only place possible. The above photograph is of the Indian Ladder Trail.

The history of the park area dates back to the late 1570s when the trail now known as the Indian Ladder Trail was used by the Mohawk Iroquois Indians to reach the trading post run by Henry Hudson. It was here that in 1777, at a spot known as Tory Cave, Jacob Salsbury found refuge from settlers during the Burgoyne Invasion.

That just skims the surface...I won't even get into the Anti-Rent War that finally destroyed Dutch Patroonship in the 1840s; check it out for yourself, but be reminded that the terrain played no small role in our success up here. That's part of the history Thacher Park preserves.

Even in spite of the history, the trail is just below the Overlook, and from both points, one can look out and view almost the entire Capital Region and straight into Massachusetts. See can pick out the Empire State Plaza and The Capitol.

How can the Governor and the Legislature and the Department not see this?

What's even more confusing about the proposed shut-down is the amount of money that the State has put into preserving and expanding Thacher Park in just the last four years...and how the State didn't have to pay a dime for the land just four years shy of a century ago!
The park is named after Albany mayor John Boyd Thacher whose widow, Emma Treadwell Thacher, donated the land in 1914. The purchase of 500 acres of land in 2004 with a State grant of $750 00 from the Environmental Protection Fund and a donation of land from the Nature Conservancy of 81 acres and the further purchase of 188 acres on 3 August 2006 took the total area of the park to 2,155 acres.
Emphasis added -SP

So the State got all sorts of historic, geologically and geographically unique land at the premium price of, uh, zero dollars and then spent three-quarters of a million dollars to add to it, then got even more acreage for free...and they're going to shut it down because it costs too much?

Don't you just love the way these guys practice not-thinking?
Unfortunately, that's how they think. I've already contacted the Legislators whose districts include Thacher Park (these are Assemblyman Jack McEneny, AD-104, and State Senator Neil Breslin, SD-46, by the way) but since they're on vacation right now, I haven't heard back from them yet. And I'm not even going to bother lobbying Gov. Paterson on the matter. He's in campaign mode now. He'll only do something about it if he thinks it'll help him win - and realistically, nothing is going to help him win.

Besides that, I don't think the closure is going to happen. It's just far too foolish. In fact, it's downright impossible to close! Our friend and columnist Fred LeBrun tells it like it is:

Take Thacher Park. How do you "close" it? A major highway runs right through it. There's easy access on all sides. Those escarpment cliffs are dangerous; hardly a year goes by without serious injury there. Which means a squad of park police will have to be stationed there, at what cost, patrolling the area year-round to protect the state's liability interest and safeguard the public.

But what park police? Manny Vilar, a veteran park cop, is the president of the union that represents the senior officer corps at parks. He points out that repeated budget cuts and a pathetic pay scale have created a ludicrous situation. In 2007, the last year there was a park police academy for new recruits, 113 new cops were hired at a cost of $6 million. But from 2004 to 2007, 118 park police left for better paying police jobs from the village level on up to State Police. So, Parks paid $6 million for a net loss of five officers, because the agency doesn't have the funds to remain competitive. As a direct consequence, a skeleton crew of 263 officers and supervisors is responsible for safeguarding 55 million visitors a year at more than 100 parks and historic sites across the state.

So, who's going to protect and preserve Thacher Park until we can reopen it? As I said, this not a pretty picture, no matter how you focus it.
Me emphasize, ugh! -SP

Now I could have left this quote to just the top paragraph. But let me explain because this hits home for me again. See, between 2001 and 2003, I was a student at the State University of New York at Oswego. I ended up majoring officially in music, but dropped out because I truly was majoring in improv comedy and dining hall studies.

The Park Police facilities for new recruits were right on campus. In fact, the recruits had the pleasure of getting to come to breakfast before the dining hall officially opened. Which means I had the distinct pleasure of having to get my own ass up early enough to help serve the morning rush. It was a fantastic experience that really taught me the value of hard work and of knowing the whole job inside and out.

It was murder, sometimes, though. I'd be on the register at the entrance swiping cards, then I'd be at the grill flipping eggs and spinning around to serve them, then I'd be rushing about the dining hall making sure that milk and juice dispensers were full, and then careening into the "slop room" to get the dishes done, all the while anticipating the next rush of studious early-riser college kids while simultaneously getting on the phone to ask my co-workers "Hey! Did you know you were on the schedule today?" In the end, the hard work paid off: I eventually worked my way up to Group Leader, an assistant manager position of sorts. But this was only a title; I knew that my hard work was going to help these trainees become full-fledged park police, who would one day safeguard New York's most precious treasures like Thacher Park back home.

So here's what this new chopping block maneuver tells me: "Sorry, but you worked for nothing, bro. It just made ya feel rosy and good about yourself. Sorry 'bout that, but since those trainees can't make a livin' and we're shuttin' down the joint anyway, you might as well have been the one partying it up and sleeping in. Hey...wanna tax credit to make up for it?" And here's what I say to that:

Bite me.

Bite me Governor David "Run Away" Paterson, bite me Office of "Closing" Parks, bite me bite me Assemblyman "History Major" McEneny, and bite me Senator Neil "Gavel Drop" Breslin.

Even if you do bite the bullet and keep these parks funded, you've gone too far just by getting this discussion started. Former Governor Teddy Roosevelt must be spinning in his grave. This should have never come under consideration. Not. Even. Mentioned.

To me, it's perfectly clear why it did: so you could scare us all with the threat of park closure and then make yourselves all look like heroes when you "turned around" and saved the parks. So you could force us all into "taking action" and organizing protests, which requires us to raise money, which we can then donate the excess to your re-election campaigns after you swoop in like Batman with your legislative and bureaucratic gadgetry to "save the day."

Save the day from what? From your own tomfoolery, that's what!

How about this: ever see a steer shovel his own bullshit? If you haven't, Washington Avenue and State Street in Albany is a good place to start.
After that's thoroughly disgusted you, take Washington up to Lark Street hang a left, stop at one of the nice cafes, then a right onto Madison Avenue after a couple blocks across from Washington Park onto New Scotland Avenue, which will carry out right out of the Albany city limits as it turns into New Scotland Road, state route 85, through the Towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland, then just after passing through the little hamlet of New Salem, go up the hill and make a right onto State Route 157 at the fork in the road to get a glimpse of Thacher Park while you still can. It'll take about twenty minutes, depending on the traffic through Delmar.

Ironically, the sign will say that Governor David Paterson "welcomes" you.
I say instead of throwing our State Parks off a cliff, we should throw these guys out of office.

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