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Mon April 25, 2011
Massachusetts 2012 House budget may mean state park closures
By Patrick Donges
Pittsfield, MA – In their proposed budget for 2012, the House Ways and Means committee recommends spending $154.4 million on environment and recreation programs. That's $10.7 million less than in 2011, and $11.7 million less than proposed for 2012 by Gov. Deval Patrick, according to a report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
State Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward Lambert says that after losing over 30 percent of the operating budget and almost 20 percent of staff positions over the last several budget cycles and closing 17 sites over the last two years, the agency is now at a tipping point.
"Additional cuts as proposed in the House Ways and Means budget are going to mean additional facilities go unstaffed and are closed."
Berkshire County is home to several state parks and forests, including Beartown State Forest, Clarksburg State Park, Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams, and Pittsfield State Forest. Lambert says the cuts would mean closures at facilities across the state, including the Berkshires.
"In terms of some of the day use areas that we have out in Western Massachusetts, like swimming areas and hiking trails. Those things, under the House Way's and Means budget, we wouldn't be able to staff them."
The DCR's Stewardship Council, a thirteen member governor appointed panel from across the state charged with advising Lambert and state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard K. Sullivan, sent a letter last week to Senate President Therese Murray and House speaker Robert DeLeo saying the budget will put the agency services in serious danger.
The letter also suggests allowing the DCR to keep 80 percent of its annual revenue, which it collects in the form of admission and camping fees. Commissioner Lambert explains.
"It's pretty minimal because we want to keep the public access piece. Right now we don't really have a way to retain that revenue, we get some of it re-appropriated back to the agency but that really is left to the discretion of the legislature from one year to the next. I think the letter from the Stewardship Council implies is that we should have some discussions about how the agency might help keep itself afloat by keeping more of those funds".
James McCaffrey, Director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, says the cuts to state park funding will eventually begin to affect the state's large tourism industry as parks go unstaffed, unwatched, and uncleaned.
"The money that goes to these agencies is used to keep these properties clean and open. If they are no longer functioning at that level people won't want to come to Mass. Think about in it in investment terms. You can't continue to just cut a budget and expect them to do more with less, all they can do now is less with less and that's going to start to affect other sectors like tourism."
Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli represents the Berkshires' fourth district.
"I'm blessed to be representing a district that has valued the importance of conservation. What the state has not done in my opinion is been good stewards."
Pignatelli said the 2012 budget will likely spell cuts for several state agencies, but how deep the cuts go in specific areas will be determined during negotiations this week.