New York state faces a massive budget crisis, so severe that lawmakers are considering furloughing government workers.
Governor David Paterson has cautioned that the state’s coffers could run dry as early as next month.
One side-effect of the spending meltdown is what appears to be the unraveling of the Adirondack Park’s normal operations.
The first terrifying salvo came two years ago, with Paterson’s threat to cap property tax payments for state land inside the blue line.
That move would have broken a century-old social contract between New York state and the communities in the Park, forcing many towns to scramble for new revenue.
The proposal was defeated, but local government leaders were left understandably wary.
Then APA officials announced that they will mothball the Park’s two visitor interpretive centers, in Newcomb and Paul Smiths. Those facilities are popular destinations, and a key resource for explaining the Park to visitors.
The Parks department also threatened to close the Crown Point and John Browns Farm historic sites, proposals that were later reversed.
In quick succession, the Department of Environmental Conservation unveiled its own plans to close state campgrounds, lay off assistant forest rangers, and close whole networks of roads that provide crucial access to the forest preserve.
In an interview with the Adirondack Explorer, Hamilton County officials blasted the decision.
“It’s one of the worst ideas I’ve seen in recent times,” said Bill Farber, the chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Farber said the county plans to press Governor David Paterson, the state legislature, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation to open the roads before Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s going to be a fight like none we’ve seen since the Forest Preserve tax cap,” he added, referring to Paterson’s proposal in 2008 to limit the taxes the state pays on Preserve lands.
The DEC is also shortening its summer camp on Lake Colby near Saranac Lake by two weeks.
But those cuts don’t begin to touch the massive downsizing within the Conservation Department.
Last week, Chris Knight reported in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise that DEC staffing cuts will soon reduce the organization to levels not seen since the 1980s.
The scale of the reductions the agency is facing worries observers in the Park, including environmentalists, sportsmen and even some local government leaders.
Some fear that DEC’s core mission is in jeopardy.
“I’m concerned about their ability to accomplish their fundamental mission, which is to protect the air, water and land resources of the state of New York,” said Joe Martens, president of the Open Space Institute.
“They’ve been cut over a number of years – all the agencies have – and at some point it’s going to cut into the heart of their program.”
The budget crisis has also prompted Governor Paterson to enact a moratorium on new land purchases in the Park.
That decision couldn’t come at a worse time for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, which is left holding tens of thousands of acres — including gorgeous wilderness areas — which the state has had on its open space wish list for decades.
While the state sorts out its mess, the Conservancy is forced to pay taxes, interest and other carrying costs on that land.
But with the DEC and the Office of Parks showing little capacity for funding long-term stewardship, or even basic operations, the argument for adding more than seventy thousand acres of additional land may be increasingly hard to make.
Indeed, the most immediate question isn’t how to expand the Park, but how to maintain it as a safe, accessible and protected resource.