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Closings loom for state parks, historic sites

Letchworth, Niagara Falls could see services reduced

ALBANY — No nuptials at Niagara Falls?

Jones Beach off limits on a 90-degree day?

The “Grand Canyon of the East” devoid of campers?

The New York State parks system, the nation’s oldest, is facing another round of funding cuts that is likely to result in the first budget-related closures in the system’s 125-year history. State officials say even popular parks at Niagara Falls and Jones Beach, with attendance figures in the millions, could be closed, along with such destinations as Letchworth, a popular hiking and camping spot ringing the rugged Genesee Gorge south of Rochester.

“It’s going to be pretty bad. As bad as I’ve ever seen it,” said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a 25-year-old nonprofit advocacy group.

Peter Humphrey, a member of the State Council of Parks, predicts as many as 100 of New York’s 213 state parks and historic sites could be shut down because of the state’s fiscal problems.

“It’s scary, to be honest with you,” said Humphrey, president and chief executive of Wyoming County-based Five Star Bank.

State parks and historic sites across the country cut back hours, staffing and services last year because of state budgets squeezed by the economic downturn. In New York, 100 of the state’s 178 state parks and 35 historic sites reduced services, from closing pools and beaches to shortening hours of operation. But none of the parks or sites closed entirely.

Carol Ash, the commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, has said park closures are unavoidable in 2010 as the state deals with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

“Frankly, it doesn’t really surprise me,” said Philip K. McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors. “Even if we start to see the economy turn around it will be a year or more before the budgets start to catch up in the public realm.”

McKnelly said several other states — among them California, Georgia and Illinois — continue to have lingering funding issues with their state parks, while Arizona plans to close 13 parks in 2010 besides the five it closed last year because of budget cuts.

New York Gov. David A. Paterson’s amended budget proposal calls for cutting $20 million from state parks.

When added to budget cuts made in the two previous fiscal years, the agency stands to see its funding reduced by some 40 percent over the span of three years, Ash said.

The parks system will operate with 1,100 fewer people — including lifeguards, cleaners and security guards — than it had just a few years ago, is canceling its park police training academy for the third consecutive year, and will cut park police staffing this summer to 266 full and part-time uniformed officers, about half the number that were on the job in 2003.

“If you don’t have the people, the police and operating funds to operate safe, clean, well-maintained facilities, you’ve got to close them,” said Humphrey, who serves on the panel of volunteers that advises the parks commissioner.

The state parks system’s many jewels include Jones Beach on Long Island, western New York’s Letchworth — the “Grand Canyon of the East” — and Niagara Falls State Park, dedicated on July 15, 1885, making it the nation’s oldest state park. Humphrey and other parks council members fear even those sites, which collectively attract millions of visitors a year, could be closed or have services drastically reduced.

Closing the Niagara Falls park would be a “disaster” for local businesses, said the owner of one of a handful of companies that provide wedding services on the American side of the falls.

“We bring a lot of revenue to the park by bringing in wedding people, really, from around the world,” said Sally Fedell, owner of The Falls Wedding Chapel, which handles between 200 and 300 wedding ceremonies a year in the park.

Ash said she’s working with other parks officials on a list of parks and historic sites that will be recommended for closing and expects to release the list in a couple weeks. Lawmakers will then get a shot at saving their local parks as they hash out details of the governor’s spending plan.

“We’re trying to figure out where we can have the least disruption to our visiting clientele so we don’t cut into our revenue base,” Ash said.

Dropkin and Humphrey pointed out that parks’ $155 million budget isn’t all that much in a state that plans to spend more than $130 billion. Meanwhile, the parks system contributes $1.9 billion a year in economic activity statewide, according to one recent study.

Closing parks, Humphrey said, would cut off a revenue source while shutting out visitors looking to spend money in local communities.

“This is clearly, purely from an economic standpoint, a lose-lose,” he said.

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