Hijacking State Park Fees: A Sharp Stick in the Eye

On a frigid day a few months ago some friends and I took a break from kayaking among the ice floes on the Connecticut River while looking for eagles and hiked up a steep trail to Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam. The 24-room, medieval-style castle, once a private mansion owned by actor William Gillette, was closed for the season but the door to a new, elegant visitors’ center nearby was open and we ducked inside to use the rest room. A blast of hot air swept out of the cavernous building when we entered. “Our tax dollars at work,” I quipped. There was only one car in the parking lot – the 184-acre grounds and extensive trails are open year-round, but on this overcast day in February visitors were virtually non-existent – and it irked me that the state had been paying a fortune to heat year-round a building that is only open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. A grate keeping off-season visitors from straying beyond the rest rooms was locked, but this did not keep the heat in. I understand that you shouldn’t entirely shut off the furnace in a building in winter, particularly one with water pipes, but for the life of me I can’t understand why the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees Connecticut’s parks and forests, could not have designed a more environmentally friendly heating system. I thought of that blast of wasted hot air the other day when I read a story by Judy Benson in The Day about how the sad state of the state’s finances will hurt Connecticut’s parks this year. The state’s doubling of park entrance and camping fees went into effect last October – after most facilities had closed for the season, meaning people won’t notice the increase until they reopen in spring – and instead of using the extra revenues for park-related expenses officials plan to divert the funds to offset a deficit in the general fund. This maneuver generated a predictable blast of heat from advocacy groups includingThe Connecticut Forest & Park Association, which maintains hundreds of miles of blue-blazed trails in Connecticut, and the 6,100-member Friends of Connecticut State Parks, which has donated considerable time and money for various improvements. Closer to home in southeastern Connecticut, the Friends of Fort Griswold have dug into their own pockets to pay for American flags flown at Fort Griswold State Park in Groton and the Friends of Harkness may be cut off from $750,000 raised over the years from weddings and receptions at the Harkness State Park mansion in Waterford to restore the greenhouse at the property. A bill pending in the legislature would create a special fund for Harkness rental income that would be used for repairs and maintenance of the mansion. I hope this legislation passes, but I also hope the state and its residents take steps to embrace more frugal and ecological behavior in state parks. In addition to curtailing the heating of little-used buildings in winter I would eliminate all garbage cans outside of rest rooms. Some might think this would lead to more littering, but experience has shown that people quickly get used to the idea of carry-in, carry-out, thereby saving on trash-collection expenses. It would also help if people got used to picking up candy wrappers, paper cups and other debris on the trail, rather than leave it for park maintenance. The advocacy groups I mentioned earlier also are always eager for more volunteers, and I can say from my own experience few outdoor activities are more rewarding than helping clear brush or joining a cleanup crew. In the mean time, get ready to pay more at park entrance gates. It will cost $14 per car on weekends to get into Harkness and $20 per car at Rocky Neck in East Lyme. Adult admission to the museum and fort at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London will go up to $10. I wouldn’t necessarily object to paying more money to visit a park if I knew the money went to maintenance and improvements. While I agree that compared to education, fire protection, police, public works and other government programs parks are a luxury, I don’t think parks should help pay for those services. Parks help make our society more civilized. They are havens where we can enjoy a stroll away from traffic, a picnic away from a fast-food joint, or simply a place to stretch out on grass, listen to birds, smell flowers and stare at clouds. Let’s at least hope the wishes of William Gillette are fulfilled. His will gave specific directions to see that his property did not fall into the hands “of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.”

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