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Finding a way to protect state parks

Published February 04. 2014 4:00AM

State parks are among the most democratic of assets available to the Connecticut public. They are available to all regardless of social or economic status. Entry to most parks is free, while the parking and camping fees charged at the parks with more amenities is a bargain for most families. Residents 65 and older can obtain a free pass for entry to all state parks and forests.

For a day, the working person can visit Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme and relish a waterside view he or she will never be able to afford as a permanent address. The intrepid hiker can escape worldly stress and connect with nature in state forests. A family can pitch tents and enjoy an affordable vacation. City dwellers find temporary escape from the heat and stifling congestion of an urban summer.

State parks and forests are for the people. The cost invested in them by the state is relatively small - $11.2 million in 2013 - when measured against the amount of pleasure and opportunities they provide the masses. A shame, then, that spending and staffing cuts endanger the ability to maintain and operate the parks.

A warning that Connecticut cannot continue to adequately administer its 139 parks and forests is contained in a new 111-page report by the General Assembly's non-partisan Programs Review and Investigations Committee. The new report notes that spending on the parks and forests system - part of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection - is 15 percent less than just three years ago.

In time, fewer people, less money and a constant state of crisis in trying to make do with less, will detract from these public places.

"Current resources may be adequate for maintaining current services provision levels in the short term," states the report, "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."

Yet the state cannot ignore fiscal realities. A big bump in spending for the parks would arguably be money well invested, particularly factoring in the economic benefits of attracting visitors to the state, but it is not politically viable in the current fiscal climate.

In seeming acknowledgement of this reality, the report offers some sensible and workable recommendations.

Currently revenues generated by fees assessed at state parks goes into the general fund, last year $6.7 million. The report recommends allowing parks to keep 25 percent to 50 percent of the funds they generate, without suffering corresponding budget cuts. This would provide revenue to undertake improvements in the parks getting the heaviest use and generating the most money.

The report sees a need for generating better data on which to base decisions. Roughly 8 million people attended state parks in 2012, but according to the report authors, "attendance data are not wholly reliable" and probably underestimate the numbers. The state needs to improve calculating park and forest use to make sensible decisions on how to invest resources, according to the report.

It also recommends the use of Results-based Accountability (RBA) procedures to quantify the nature of park use, to establish goals and guidelines and measure success in achieving them, and to assess park operations. With budgets cut, the park system has defaulted to "crisis management" with little attention paid to long-term planning, the report concludes.

With access to better data and the planning it allows, the report recommends giving park managers the latitude to take creative, innovative approaches to providing more services and generating more revenues - bike rental and maintenance services to service bike trails, canoe and kayak rentals, sale of lumber produced by thinning and managing woodlands, for example.

These public lands provide a vital service and their proper management should be a priority. This recent report provides a good starting point for a discussion on how to make sure it is a priority that does not go ignored.

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