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Don and Connie Christie walk the beach at Rocky Neck State Park, near their home in Niantic, just about every day, even on days like Thursday when the thermometer hovered in the low 20s.
"It's a great park. It's a treasure," Don Christie said as he stood near one of the dozens of snow patches dotting the beach, deserted except for a few seagulls. "The crew here does a great job with what they have to work with, but of course they could use more resources."
The couple also enjoys visits to Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford and Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, and is equally impressed with how park staff there manage to do a lot with a little. Though all three are among the top 10 on the state's list of its 139 parks and forests in terms of attendance and income from admission and concession fees, these parks have no more pull than any other when it comes to how much of this revenue they get to keep - none.
But state parks, the Christies believe, shouldn't be forever consigned to operate on the shoestring budget they get from the state's general fund, with minimal control over their own resources.
"They should get to use more of their own revenues," Don Christie said, his wife nodding in agreement.
That sentiment is one of the key recommendations of a state legislative report released Jan. 23. The 111-page report, commissioned by the Programs Review and Investigations Committee, advocates that parks be allowed to keep 25 percent to 50 percent of the funds they generate annually - $6.7 million in 2013 - to be used for improvement projects and new initiatives. Doing so, the report argues, would free park and forest managers to be more creative and entrepreneurial in how they run these public lands, even adding attractions such as canoe and kayak rentals, offering more timber for sale and using the funds to improve state-owned woodlands or even developing a public golf course.
"Our point is that they haven't been rewarded with their own funds to invest in these properties," said state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, co-chairwoman of the committee that commissioned the report. Legislation based on the recommendations will be introduced in the new session that opens this week, she said.
Of the 107 parks and 32 state forests, 35 charge seasonal admission fees. Under the proposed new system, the funds retained by the park and forest system, part of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, would be reinvested both in the revenue-generating properties and in those that charge no fees. Before 2010, when the park system budget peaked at $15 million and its revenues hit a high of $8.44 million, the system was allowed to retain about 30 percent of its revenues. Since then, the park system has been entirely dependent on General Fund revenue.
In 2013, the state provided $11.2 million to staff and manage the 255,000 acres and more than 450 buildings under DEEP's care. An additional $1.6 million came from federal grants and private donations. The current $12.8 million budget is about 15 percent below the 2010 level, and staffing has dipped from a high of 110 administrators, clerical personnel, supervisors, maintainers and seasonal workers in 2008 to 88 last year, a 20 percent drop.
The supervisor at Rocky Neck is now in charge of 22 properties, including Nehantic State Forest in Lyme and several boat launches, according to DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain. The supervisor of Gillette Castle, another of the state's most popular parks, also is responsible for Devil's Hopyard, also in East Haddam, as well as Selden Island in the Connecticut River in Lyme, Gardner Lake in Salem and more than a dozen others. The head manager of Fort Trumbull in New London also oversees Fort Griswold in Groton, Barn Island in Stonington, Bluff Point and Haley Farm in Groton, and several others. The supervisor of Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, the state's largest, handles a total of 35 properties, Schain said.
"There are an inadequate number of supervisors at appropriate levels to fill the needs of the current 23 management units," the report says. Staff levels "are below what would normally be considered functional and safe, given the types of work performed." It calls for 12 new staff to be added.
Mushinsky said she asked for the report during the 2013 session both out of a personal love for state parks and a concern that these treasured public lands were starting to show signs of deterioration, citing visits to two parks in her district, Wharton Brook and Sleeping Giant. The parks drew about 7.75 million visitors in 2012, but more accurate methods of counting should be instituted as part of more systematic data collection and performance measurement, the report also points out. The situation demanded attention, Mushinsky said, especially as the park system was celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2013 and 2014.
"We found there's been short-term planning for the park system. It's defaulted to crisis management," she said. "We're trying to keep our parks sustainable over the next 100 years, but we need to do it more scientifically. If we do it right, it will pay off."
Susan Whalen, DEEP deputy commissioner, said the study was thorough and detailed, and that the department is open to any of the recommendations. But it also recognizes that the state "has serious fiscal issues."
"We're doing a lot of things to try and streamline services," she said.
Status quo unrealistic
Despite the decline in operating revenues over the last few years, she said, the park system has benefitted from state bond funds for major projects at the most popular shoreline parks, including Hammonasset, Silver Sands in Milford and Sherwood Island in Westport. Last year, 26 new rental cabins opened at parks in the western half of the state, and more will be built in the eastern half. Rocky Neck is slated to get some of the cabins, Whalen said, and other projects are planned to buttress the beach and boardwalk there against future severe storms such as Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. Fort Griswold is also in line for repairs, she said.
Eileen Grant, president of the volunteer group Friends of Connecticut State Parks, said she agrees with the report's recommendations, but believes the baseline for comparisons shouldn't be the 110 staff the parks system had in 2009, but the 135 people who worked there in 1996. She also noted that one-quarter of the current staff will be eligible for retirement this year, leaving the system increasingly vulnerable to losing positions to attrition.
"The staffing recommendations are far too low," she said. "I also think we should get to a 100 percent return of park revenues to the system."
According to the report, keeping the status quo isn't a realistic option. Some lesser-used parks would have to be closed or other drastic and likely unpopular steps will have to be taken if more resources aren't provided, it says. Admission fee hikes probably would be counterproductive, it notes, given the attendance declines since 2009, when fees were doubled, then partially scaled back the following year.
"Current resources may be adequate for maintaining current services provision levels in the short term, but either an increase in funding and staffing or a decrease in services is necessary for continued adequate state park operations in the long term," the report states.
Eric Hammerling, executive of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, said closing parks would amount to "killing the golden goose" because of all the economic, social and environmental benefits parks provide. He noted a 2011 study by the University of Connecticut's Center for Economic Analysis that showed outdoor activities on state lands generate $1 billion in economic benefit and support 9,000 jobs. For every dollar the state spends on parks, the study says, the state receives a return of $38 in economic activity.
"Our parks need support right now," he said. "As the state continues its 100th anniversary year celebration for parks, it's time to fund parks in a different way."
When she advocates in the upcoming session for legislation based on the recommendations, Mushinsky said, she will stress that investing in parks is even more important in times of economic hardship.
"This is where people go who need a break from their hardworking lives who don't have a lot of money," she said. "Parks are very necessary for quality of life and the good mental health of the state."