Recently, there was an opinion piece about how a certain area of state land should be classified. The author, who works for an environmental advocacy group, was arguing for the strictest classification, and then went on to discuss how to limit access as well as what facilities should be constructed and where. My reply comment was “Great, and just who do you think is going to do this?” This isn’t the only time something like this has happened. I had a similar response to another group a few years ago that was trying to advocate for the creation of a new national park. Why would I make these responses? Because I’m for parks.
A few years ago I made this comment about New York’s state park system:
When you look at how we’ve managed our parks, it’s hard not to draw an inescapable conclusion: We’re slumlords. When you consider that we’ve allowed our parks over the years to develop a maintenance backlog that now totals over 700 million dollars, and possibly more when looking at the entire system, along with cutting personnel over the years, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion. We have taken “crown jewels” – ecologically or historically important places under our stewardship, and allowed them to deteriorate – sometimes beyond repair.
The current figure is in the billion dollar range. If you look at the national parks, it’s in the area of 10 billion dollars. This isn’t a new problem, and it wasn’t caused by the recession, although that exacerbated it. It’s been going on for decades. Which is why I get more than a little angry at many of these activists. It’s not that I don’t agree with an area needs protection, or should be added to the park system. It’s that they seem to think that just getting it added is sufficient, and it’s not.
When you add a new park, or put an additional area under protection, it costs money. Not just the immediate costs of buying the land or building any facilities, but long term costs. It takes people, equipment, and supplies to monitor it and maintain things. You need rangers, you need trail maintenance, and if you’ve built camping spots, someone has to check on them. If you’ve built a campground there, you need to have people to run it. Roads, bridges, buildings, and parking areas all need to be repaired on a regular basis. They come with costs.
Which is what I almost never see any of the advocacy groups talk about, or advocate for. The overall attitude seems to boil down to that once an area is “protected,” that’s enough, and it’s time to move on to the next area. What it really does is reduce the protections on existing parks and protected areas. It’s easy to persuade politicians that something should be a new park or wilderness area. It’s a simple law, a one-time expense, and they get to participate in a ribbon cutting ceremony for media exposure. It’s not easy to persuade them that they need to increase the budget to cover the added personnel and expenses that brings. Instead, what they do is take it from existing places and move them to the new one.
Which was why I made the response I did to that opinion piece, and why I often find myself in conflict with various advocacy groups. It’s because I’ve watched it happen. The number of forest rangers and ECO’s have been cut in this area, the trail crews that used to maintain the trail system aren’t there, the people who used to be out monitoring the wilderness areas are no more, the campgrounds are operating on “bare minimum” staffing, and the maintenance crews are a pitiful fraction of what they were. That’s all been within the past 20 years, while at the same time more land and facilities have been added at the behest of various groups.
Until – or unless – there is a recognition that there are additional and permanent costs to adding things to our park systems or putting an area under stringent protections, and advocating for that with the creation of them, I have a hard time supporting it. I’d love it if that were the case, so I could. The sad reality is that when it comes to parks or protecting our environment, we’re not very good. You know what they call people who buy properties and allow them to run down because they don’t pay for maintenance? Slumlords. That’s what we are, environmental slumlords.