Not even during the Great Depression did New York shut its state parks. But last month, an $8.2 billion state budget deficit prompted the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) to recommend the indefinite closing of 41 parks and 14 historic sites across New York state, with reductions in hours and services at an additional 24 sites. In combination with last year’s budget cuts, the agency has seen an unprecedented 40 percent reduction in its budget over the last three years, from $250 million to $155 million.
In addition to parks, the list of cutbacks includes historic sites such as military forts, battlefields, and swimming beaches from Long Island to Niagara Falls. “We looked at a number of factors, including visitation, operating costs, and revenues,” said Dan Keefe, spokesperson for the OPRHP. “And we tried to spread the closings out across the state.” The list includes two parks within New York City: Queens’ Bayswater Point State Park, to be closed indefinitely, and Harlem’s Riverbank State Park, whose current operating hours of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily would be reduced to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m daily.
The current list of cutbacks could grow, according to Albany-based nonprofit Parks & Trails New York, which predicts that the state legislature is likely to repeal an additional $5 million this month in Environmental Protection Fund money (an amount that the OPRHP is currently counting in its budget). The loss of those funds could prompt an additional 34 closings and reductions.
Until the budget is finalized for the state’s next fiscal year, which begins on April 1, advocates are lobbying to change the legislature’s mind. The crux of their case is that the government is underestimating the parks’ economic benefits. “It’s obvious that parks were seen as expendable in our budget this year,” said Shawn McConnell, Parks & Trails’ director of the Campaign for Parks. “And our argument is that they are not, that they are actually essential in helping us climb our way out of this economic hardship we’re in.” A report commissioned by the organization estimates that spending by park visitors and by OPRHP supports $1.9 billion in economic activity and 20,000 jobs annually.
It is not yet clear whether and how the parks will be preserved while they are closed. Historic sites may be at particular risk, such as Fort Ontario Park, built by the British in 1755 and designated a historic site in 1949. “Once the facilities start to deteriorate, they will become very expensive to reopen,” McConnell warned. While the goal is to eventually reopen all the sites, Keefe said the agency had not yet reached any decisions about upkeep until then.