Parks advocates urged to 'speak up, speak out' against cuts

Waterford — In the face of “severe” cutbacks proposed for the agency, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee urged state parks advocates to “continue to be that loud voice speaking up and speaking out about the importance of these places.”

Klee, speaking to about 75 people gathered for the annual meeting of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association at Harkness Memorial State Park, said that whatever version of the state budget is finally adopted, his agency “will continue to shrink.” But he said that DEEP staff are continuing to try to find new, more efficient ways of managing their responsibilities, including taking care of state parks and forests.

Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy released a revised two-year budget proposal that would cut support from the state’s general fund to DEEP to about $52 million annually, $11.4 million less than the current year. That amount is more than triple the cut proposed in the original budget plan released by Malloy in February.

To absorb that kind of cut, Klee said, funding for state parks and forests would be slashed in order to leave the agency with enough resources for essential services. The agency, which now has about 900 employees, has been reduced by more than 100 staff members due to attrition over the last two years, and another 22 received layoff notices last week. Among them were 12 parks maintainers.

“Our first priority has to be protection of public health and the environment,” Klee said. “That means that most of the cuts are falling on the conservation side. It would mean pulling back to a few shoreline parks, and extreme passive management of the rest.”

The state budget crisis, he noted, comes as federal funding for the agency also is threatened.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would reduce funding that comes to DEEP from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy by $11 million, Klee said. Federal funds provide about one-quarter of DEEP’s total $175 million annual budget.

Included in some of the alternative state budget plans now being considered by the state legislature, Klee said, is a “passport to parks” program that DEEP proposed as a new way of funding parks. It would add a $10 charge to all vehicle registration fees, and give drivers of all vehicles with Connecticut license plates free admission to the parks. The approximately $14 million in funds this would generate would go directly to parks.

Currently, park admission fees go to the state’s general fund, and about $6 million is returned to the parks annually for maintenance and operations.

“The passport to parks would open up all of the parks to all of our citizens, and make them a shared investment,” Klee said.

Joe Hickey of Wethersfield, a former DEEP employee and honorary director of the Forest & Park Association, said the proposed cuts to parks would undermine their economic value to the state.

“If the parks are going to be starved,” he said, “it’s going to cut into tourism. You can’t have it both ways.”

Klee agreed, noting an analysis that quantified the economic activity generated by parks at $1 billion annually. He urged members of the audience to advocate for parks with their legislators, arguing for the parks' value for the state’s economy, for the physical and mental well-being of the state's youth and adults, for protection of ecosystems and to give the state better resiliency against climate change. He said that, despite the grim outlook, he remains hopeful the damage will be less severe than currently anticipated.

“This is a pretty significant storm,” Klee said. “But we also have resilience built in. We will get through this.”

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Forest & Parks Association, told members they will need to be “aggressive” to get lawmakers to support parks.

“We can’t let these things happen,” he said.

 j.benson@theday.com

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