Closing Time?: A Prolonged Budget Crunch Could Spell Hard Times For State Parks

Connecticut's state park system is having its 100th birthday this summer, but the celebrations could turn out rather grim.

State budget shortages seem likely to force cutbacks in summer staff like lifeguards and seasonal rangers, and there's even a danger that smaller parks and state forests could be shut down.

"Is it a possibility? Absolutely," Tom Tyler, director of Connecticut's troubled state park system, says of the option of padlocking several of the less popular facilities. "The goal is not to do any wholesale closing of parks," he adds in a not-exactly-comforting explanation.

"If they have to close them, you're going to see problems," warns Pamela Aey Adams, a former director of the state park system and current vice president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks. "You're going to see vandalism."

In reality, Adams points out, you can't close off a park or forest completely. People can still get in and, with no one around to keep watch, there are going to be idiots breaking into buildings and trashing campgrounds and toilets. Routine maintenance will go by the boards and all this will be coming down at a time when lots of people are hurting economically and are looking for low-cost vacation alternatives.

The troubles facing our state park system are just one itty-bitty sidelight to a $1.2 billion budget mess. That's the size of the fiscal gap (the difference between tax revenue coming in and expected spending) legislative wonks are estimating for the budget year that begins July 1.

Gov. Dannel Malloy will offer up his plan for getting out of this butt-ugly budget hole on Wednesday (Feb. 6). The only sure bet is that it's going to be painful and closing a few parks may seem incidental to some policy makers.

But another governor got into a hell of a lot of hot water with the public when he shut down state parks during a budget crisis. That was back in 1991 when then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. was locked in a standoff with lawmakers over passage of a state income tax and closed a lot of state offices and facilities that summer.

"The parks were closed … at the peak of the recreation season," recalls Adams, who spent 13 years in charge of the park system. She says both Weicker and state lawmakers were "surprised at the outcry" from people who were counting on being able to go to their favorite campground or beach.

"People love their state parks," Adams says.

Most of the parks got reopened in a hurry, says Adams, but eight parks and forest remained close for several years. Those included spots like Penwood State Park in Bloomfield, Putnam Memorial in Redding, Shenipsit State Forest in Ellington and Stafford, and Devil's Hopyard in East Haddam.

Tyler insists there's no risk that big parks like Hammonasset Beach or Sherwood Island will be closed down this summer. (Connecticut actually has 107 state parks and forests scattered across the landscape.)

He says what's most likely is that money for hiring seasonal help will be slashed, forcing campgrounds to open later or lifeguards to only be on duty weekends early in the season.

The problem is that "We in Connecticut, perhaps more than other states, rely on seasonal employees to help us run our state park system," Tyler explains.

"On any given summer weekend, 90 percent of the people working in our state parks are seasonal help," he says. Last year, the state hired about 500 seasonal workers for the park system.

Cuts in the full-time staff at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have also hurt the park system, Tyler says.

Three decades ago, the system had more than double the number of full-timer workers than it has now, but staff levels were whittled away by a whole series of state budget crunches.

In 1971, the state parks had 220 field staff (exclusive of administrative types). By 2005, after a bunch of tough fiscal years, the field folks had dropped to 77. A few more were added back but then more cutback hit and the current staff working full-time in state parks is just 74.

State Rep. Linda Gentile, D-Ansonia, is the brand new co-chair of the legislature's Environment Committee. "I certainly would hope that [closing down or curtailing staff at state parks] would not be the case," she says.

In this lousy economy, Gentile points out, "you're not going to see lots of people flying off to Florida for their vacations … They're going to want to stay here and go to our state parks."

Adams say the "truly sad part" about the budget troubles right now is that they're likely to hit right on the centennial anniversary of the founding of the park system.

The Friends of Connecticut State Parks is hoping to raise $165,000 for the birthday celebrations, according to Adams, and has already sent letters explaining the anniversary, with centennial pins enclosed, to all state lawmakers. (Maybe a little birthday guilt will help find the cash to keep those parks open this year.)

Adams says she hopes no one loses sight of just how important those state parks and forests are to all sorts of people.

"Right after 9/11, state parks across the nation saw a massive influx of people," Adams remembers. "People look to our state parks as places of solitude, as places to get back to what is real in life."

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