What happens when the state closes parks? A journalist investigates.

This story is published in the Fall 2017 issue of Connecticut Woodlands magazine. For more, please visit ctwoodlands.org.


 

The sunset at Green Fall Pond in Voluntown held the kind of solitude you can only find at the end of a bumpy road. Surrounded by thousands of acres of Pachaug State Forest, the landscape looked about as natural and undisturbed as a former granite quarry possibly could. The only incongruous detail was the beach ball. I’d been hiking along the blue-blazed Narragansett Trail on the edge of the lake when I spotted the ball floating several hundred feet from shore. Further down, in the lake’s roped-off swimming area, a father and his two sons stood in the water, staring hopelessly after the ball.

As I made my way to the beach for one last swim—sunset is closing time in Connecticut’s state parks—I passed a gate that had been closed and locked across the entrance of a gravel road. A paper sign was nailed to the gate, and it read, “Dear Valued Visitor: Green Falls Campground will be CLOSED for the 2017 season.”

I wondered how many other visitors to Connecticut’s state parks and forests had seen similar signs posted elsewhere. A few days before this, Governor Dannel P. Malloy had signed an executive order cutting government services in the wake of the legislature’s failure to pass a biennial state budget. The order had forced the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, to close four of its public campgrounds as part of a department-wide cut to summer staff and other services. The campground here at Green Fall Pond, along with two others at Devil’s Hopyard and Salt Rock State Parks, had been shut down in early 2016 in the course of a similarly fraught budget session. These three parks have now been closed to the public—and more or less unmanaged—for over a year.

From behind the gate, several campsites were visible in various stages of neglect. Enormous weeds, some as tall as my shoulders, had overtaken the flat clearings meant for tents and campfires. They gave the area an uncanny, almost sinister look, as if it were at the bottom of the sea. It was a glimpse of what the rest of the park system could look like a year from now.

The gravel road led into the woods and around the back of a short granite cliff. A second sign on the gate read, “No Trespassing,” and for this reason I did not—again, did not—step over the gate, walk up the road, and find a secluded, less-weeded campsite on the other side of the cliff. Instead, after pausing at the gate for five minutes or so—or roughly the amount of time required to pitch a tent—I continued towards the beach. I might have also stopped at my car to grab a bag of freeze dried meals and a toothbrush for no reason in particular.

At the beach, the gleaming rubbery ball was still at large, but the father and his sons had gone. Traces of dark blue had moved into the eastern sky. I was completely alone, and as I set my small protable camper’s stove onto a picnic table, I wondered how much longer it would be until a park manager arrived to escort me out of the forest. I considered, briefly, what it might take to get away with spending a night in a large, unwatched state park, or even a closed one—or, come to think of it, what the difference was between them.

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Since the recession of 2008, budget woes have become something of a permanent fixture of America’s state parks. In a 2013 survey of state parks across the country, the research group Resources for the Future found a nationwide decline in state park expenditures beginning in 2007. In Connecticut, state parks were dealt a major blow in 2010 with the state’s elimination of the Environmental Conservation Fund, a kind of savings account for park-generated revenues such as parking fees and campground reservations. At the time, the ECF provided a quarter of the park system’s budget.

Today, state law requires that park-generated revenues go to the state’s all-purpose General Fund. Unlike the ECF, however, this funding source provides no guarantee that those same revenues will be spent on the parks themselves. As a result, the state parks must compete with Connecticut’s other discretionary government programs for a slice of the budgetary pie. In recent years, that pie has been rapidly shrinking.

Connecticut’s slow economic recovery exacerbated a preexisting debt crisis that now threatens the long-term economic stability of the state as a whole. The state government currently owns over $170 billion in unpaid liabilities accumulated by entitlement programs and other unpaid debt since 1939. By 2032, economic foreceasts predict that the annual payments on two of those accounts, for state employee pensions and teacher pensions, will exceed $12 billion—a spike in expenses that Governor Malloy has said the state “cannot survive.”

These economic troubles have left the state parks facing an existential crisis. How can the state operate its 140 parks, beaches, and forests when it can’t afford to pay its bills? During the budget negotiations in the first half of 2017, two possible answers emerged: either continue operating them through the General Fund, or find an alternative method of financing the parks.

The first scenario could cause a dramatic change in the way the state parks are operated today. In the almost certain event of future reductions in statewide General Fund spending, the state will be unable to afford the state park system’s existing $16 million budget, causing severe and unprecedented cuts in staff, maintenance, and other services currently offered by the parks. Under this new arrangement, oversight of the parks would shift to a mostly hands-off policy known as “passive management.”

To avoid this scenario, park advocates have proposed an alternative arrangement that would build on the idea of the Environmental Conservation Fund. Their plan calls for adding a voluntary, opt-out surcharge to residents’ biennial vehicle registration fees, with the ensuing revenue going into a fund—called a “designated non-lapsing account” by policymakers—exclusively for the management of the park system. In return, residents who choose to pay the surcharge would be given free admission to the entire state park system. Advocates have named this proposal the “Passport to the Parks.”

If enacted, the Passport to the Parks program is expected to generate roughly $14 million a year—almost 90 percent of the parks General Fund allocation in 2017. Existing revenue sources not covered by the Passport, such as camping permits and pavilion rentals, would contribute another $4 million. Meanwhile, the funds generated by the surcharge would create identical savings in the General Fund. The parks, in effect, would become entirely self-sustaining.

“We think that’s a concept worth looking at,” said DEEP spokesperson Dennis Schain.

The Passport program has gained wide support from conservation and outdoor recreation groups over the last two years. “We certainly support the passport,” said Pamela Aey Adams, president of Friends of the Connecticut State Parks. “It just makes so much sense,” Amy Paterson of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council. Others like Eric Hammerling, Executive Director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, have been unambiguous in their stance against the use of passive management. “It would be devastating—absolutely devastating—with regard to the parks,” he said. (The Connecticut Forest and Park Association publishes this magazine.) Several of the eight different budget proposals discussed this year, from both Democrats and Republicans, have supported the Passport program as well.

Enactment of the Passport program is far from assured, however. Governor Malloy has cited skepticism of the revenue projections put forth my proponents of the Passport, and the program was not included in the two-year budget proposal released by his office in May. According to Dennis Schain, however, “Just because it wasn’t in the governor’s budget doesn’t mean he doesn’t support it.” Meanwhile, the proposed budgets that included the program may not prove to be reliable indications of political will. The spokesman for one state senator on the Environment Committee, for example, told me that the senator was in favor of the Passport program, but also not in favor of raising residents’ auto registration fees. Eric Hammerling says he is cautiously optimistic, but added, “It’s been a weird year.”

As of July, the political stalemate could very well push the budget negotiations into the late months of the year. The parks, however, are under a more pressing deadline. The funding provided by the governor’s executive order is set to expire after Labor Day, when park revenues are expected to drop from their peak in the busy summer months. In anticipation, DEEP announced earlier this summer that camping permits would not be offered for the fall 2017 season. If a budget is not passed by the fall, the entire park system will likely be forced into passive management.

In the meantime, passive management was taking its toll on the state parks this summer. “We’re already getting pictures from folks of trash that’s been dumped in different areas, because there’s no one around,” said Hammerling. I could see what he meant as I ate my dinner in the picnic area of Green Fall Pond. A few feet away from my picnic table, a garbage can stood with a virtual monument of trash piled carefully over the brim. If I had been planning to spend the night at the nearby campground, I might have been nervous about the bears in this forest. I was glad, however, to find that the open restrooms made a very secure bear shelter, if one were needed.

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Talk of such large-scale cuts to Connecticut’s state parks and recreation areas might suggest that these activities cost the state a lot of money. While DEEP’s $63 million General Fund allocation might sound like a large sum, it represented only 0.35 percent of the total $19 billion in the General Fund. Seen in this context, the $16 million budget of the state parks is infinitesimally small. And as it turns out, cutting funds from these particular sources could do considerably more harm than their small budgets might suggest.

The fact often goes unacknowledged that DEEP is one of the most cost-effective and ultimately valuable organizations in the entire state. Among government programs, the agency has emerged as one of the state’s foremost achievers in the state’s push to improve internal efficiency. Under the LeanCT program, the government’s internal efficiency initiative, DEEP has implemented 80 various “process improvements” since 2008. In recent years, DEEP officials have even been called to consult other government agencies on their own respective progress under the LeanCT program.

One major driver of DEEP’s increased efficiency is, of course, the severe budget cuts that have hit the agency over the last few years. Between 2015 and 2017, DEEP’s allocation of the General Fund—comprising over 60 percent of the agency’s budget—fell by nearly 14 percent. Federal funding, another quarter of the DEEP budget, has fallen by nine percent since 2013.

These cuts have not always been equally distributed across DEEP’s various divisions. Compared to other state agencies, a large proportion of DEEP’s expenditures go towards non-discretionary activities, largely for administering compliance with state and federal environmental regulations. Of the agency’s discretionary spending, the vast majority—nearly two-thirds—is spent by the Environmental Conservation division, which oversees the parks. This is the primary reason that conservation and recreation programs are so often targeted in lean financial times.

In 2016, when the agency was asked to cut nearly $10 million from its existing General Fund budget, a proportional cut to the state park system would have exceeded $6 million—enough to necessitate a large-scale adoption of passive management policies. Ultimately, agency officials decided to keep most of the parks’ budget intact, opting for the $1.8 million cut which lead to the first three campground closures and other service reductions last summer. Doing so, however, required keeping some 30 open department positions unstaffed at a time when the agency is reeling from the effects of deep staffing reductions. Since 2007, staffing at DEEP’s three main branches of environmental protective services—the divisions of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Quality, and Centralized Services—has fallen by over 20 percent.

In recent years, agency officials have begun to use the term “critical vacancies” to describe the increasing number of core staff positions that have disappeared as a result of layoffs, hiring freezes, and retirement incentive programs by the state. DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, speaking to the legislative Environment Committee last year, cited one example of critical vacancies in the agency’s aquatic pesticides group, which lost three of its four members in 2015. “They”—now, a single employee—“will still get the same 500 applications,” he said. Even when positions can be refilled, the loss of experienced staff to retirements has been particularly challenging, as former Deputy Commissioner Mike Sullivan explained in the same committee hearing. “Those people frequently have the strength of ten.”

It will be virtually impossible for DEEP to absorb the next hit to its discretionary budget without severe cuts to the Environmental Conservation division. In fact, such cuts are already underway. This summer, the state parks’ corps of seasonal workers suffered a 45 percent cut in hours under the governor’s June executive order. Traditionally, this seasonal workforce has provided virtually all of the day-to-day maintenance and support required to operate the parks during the high season, and their absence is what has forced many parks to fall under passive management this year.

This seasonal workforce is also what allow the parks to bring in its roughly two million dollars’ worth of parking and entrance fees each summer, a fact which underscores a deep irony about the crisis facing the parks. As cuts to DEEP endanger the future of the “discretionary” park system, the parks themselves are one of DEEP’s most economically valuable assets. According to the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, at the University of Connecticut, the “discretionary” outdoor programs of the agency’s Bureau of Environmental Conservation generate over $1 billion of economic activity in the state every year. The state parks alone were found to produce about $38 in local economic activity for every $1 spent by the state to operate them.

A person camping in one of the four closed state campgrounds might find particular irony in the study’s finding that campgrounds brought Connecticut’s economy $18 million of out-of-state money—four-fifths of the out-of-state total for the parks. This economic point is far from abstract. In the governor’s latest budget proposal, the four towns whose campgrounds were closed this summer could lose almost $4 million in combined municipal aid from the state. Voluntown alone could lose over $1.3 million. When DEEP announced the closure of Green Fall Pond last summer, Voluntown First Selectman Robert Sirpenski told reporters, “We’re getting shortchanged.”

~~~

I try not to let statistics distract me from the true value of Connecticut’s state parks. The week after my visit to Green Fall Pond, a friend and I went for a hike at Devil’s Hopyard, in East Haddam. We arrived only a little later than planned—just after sunset. Up the road from the parking lot above Chapman Falls, a familiar wooden gate stood closed at the entrance to the park’s campground.

It was a miserable, humid evening that I would hardly have chosen for hiking, but I had little choice. My friend, from Ohio, had been bragging about some of the swimming holes in his home state, and I had to put his claims to rest.

We crossed the Eightmile River on the covered wooden bridge and hiked up the trail to a rocky outcrop overlooking Chapman Falls. It had rained the entire week before. Spray whipped our faces as the swollen falls roiled the waters in the pool below our feet, thundering louder than even the growl of a pickup truck accelerating up the nearby road. Somewhere below, perhaps, little rocks were digging the strange, perfect portholes the falls are famous for, which early settlers saw and believed was the work of the devil.

“Whoa,” said my friend, barely audible.

Will the Passport to the Parks be the solution to the threats facing places like Devil’s Hopyard? Like Eric Hammerling, I’m cautiously optimistic. Standing in front of Champan Falls, I would have said that the parks are worth any amount of funding. They might even be priceless. But there is no denying the weight of the pressures they face, and just as the parks are worth far more than a few millions of dollars, Connecticut’s financial crisis is more than just a book to be balanced. It’s the livelihoods of teachers and public servants, the dreams of retirees, the health of the poor and the sick, and the hopes of immigrants, refugees, parents, and children. Those things are priceless, too.

Connecticut faces impossible choices over the next decade, and even the Passport program may not be able to shield the parks from the economic consequences. The recent threats to one other government program serve as a cautionary tale. The Community Investment Act, or CIA, was established in 2005 as a dedicated funding source for local land projects and financed with a surcharge on municipal real estate recording fees. Since its inception, the CIA has generated upwards of $4 billion in statewide economic activity, as well as tens of thousands of jobs. “It’s brilliant,” said Amy Paterson of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, an outspoken advocate for the program. But the state’s last biennial budget cut funding for the CIA by 50 percent, and there are proposals in this year’s negotiations to sweep the rest of its funding into the General Fund.

“It was really meant to weather any fiscal crises,” says Paterson of the CIA’s dedicated funding source. Today, however, advocates for the CIA worry about a possible raid of the funds that have already been raised and promised to existing projects. “I think it’s just looked upon as a source of revenue,” Paterson said. So, too, might the $14 million raised by the Passport to the Parks.

I thought of other questions as we stared at the roaring falls. What kind of places will a Passport give access to? In the parking lot, my friend and I had passed a sign warning of high bacteria levels in the river following the storms. Will the Passport protect DEEP’s other divisions, including Environmental Quality, from dwindling state and federal funds? Park maintenance is one thing, but ensuring the health of Connecticut’s environment as a whole is quite another.

The sky had turned the color of wet stone when we hiked back into the darkening woods. We must have taken a wrong turn, however, because rather than finding our way back to the covered bridge, we emerged, inexplicably, across the road from the campground gate.

So much for caution. As for optimism, the best reason I could give would probably be the continued efforts of Connecticut’s outdoor community to rally behind the parks. During the week of rain, I’d asked Pamela Aey Adams, president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, how many individual friends made up her organization’s 26 different local chapters. “A little over 6,000,” she said. An all-volunteer organization more than six times the size of DEEP seems like a pretty good friend to have.

The most important thing, it seems to me, is for all Connecticut residents to do their part. That might mean paying the government an extra $10 every two years. It might mean bringing a garbage bag on a hike to clean up garbage at a passively managed campground. Or, if you happen to be violating Sections 23-4-3(a) through 23-4-3(k) of the state’s regulations on the use of public lands—which, I should mention, you must not do, even if you’re willing to be punished with up to a year-long ban from the state park system—it might mean teaching a friend about Leave No Trace camping ethics.

My memory of the rest of my visit to Devil’s Hopyard is hazy. It’s possible we stood at the gate for a very long time, staring at the beautiful moonlit campground on the other side—empty, abandoned, overgrown, but beautiful. We might also have heard bullfrogs in the nearby pond, and the piercing cry of an owl. But I do remember the pile of beer cans resting in the fire pit. I also remember, much later, hearing a group of voices deep in the woods, and spotting the pair of flashlights wobbling in the dark. They emerged from the trail, crossed the road, and walked away to the open gate of the parking lot.

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