Feds Threaten New York Over Park Closings
Federal officials are threatening to withhold millions of dollars in funding to the state of New York if the Paterson administration pushes forward with its plan to close parks around the state, according to the Albany Times Union.
In a letter dated March 31, National Parks Service Northeast Regional Director Dennis Reidenbach wrote that the move would put New York in "non-compliance" with the requirements for taking funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Federal Land for Parks Program.
"Also, NPS may initiate suspension and debarment procedures to have all Federal funds (e.g. Recreation, Housing, Transportation, Education etc.) withheld from the State of New York," Reidenbach wrote. "In addition, closure of any park acquired through FLP could result in reversion of the property to Federal ownership and subsequent sale of the property."
Gov. David Paterson proposed the closure of 41 parks and 14 historic sites — the majority of which, Reidenbach wrote, have received federal funds. The cuts are slated to save $6.3 million.
Eileen Larrabee, a spokeswoman for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said they don't believe the proposed closures put the state in violation.
"We are as committed to these parks and these public spaces as anybody else. We are dealing with the current fiscal crisis, and we simply do not have the funding to open all of these parks right now," she said. "Ultimately we believe that these closures are temporary and not permanent, and we're not converting the land. We would assert that the funding is not jeopardized."
Fed Help 'Diminished'
New York received $1.4 million from the LWCF last year, and is slated to receive just under $1.9 million this year. Larrabee said that has been "diminished" from around $20 million a year, which has made it difficult to keep up with needed maintenance.
OPRHP Commissioner Carol Ash did not raise the federal threat during a Thursday meeting of the state Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation. She told the committee that if the new state budget is delayed beyond early May, it could threaten state plans to open 34 parks that now depend on added funding from the state Environmental Protection Fund under Paterson's proposed budget.
Parks officials are currently hiring seasonal workers for the parks.
Parks Service spokesman Phil Sheridan said the law was clear that lands needed to stay open for public recreation "in perpetuity," and the principle was important.
"Our only recourse is that there is a significant penalty if you fail to live up to that pledge," Sheridan said. "It is very tough budgetarily. However, the fact remains that people accept these and accept certain responsibilities. As private citizens, if we accept money for certain things it would annul the contract if we did things with it that we didn't say we were going to do."
He said Reidenbach's letter was prompted by U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Ulster County, who questioned Parks Service officials about the LWCF provisions and requested they communicate their position to the Paterson administration.
The letter, which Hinchey posted on Facebook earlier this week, was the result.
"The public has no less need for recreation opportunities and access to open space in times of economic hardship," Reidenbach concluded. "If anything, the need for recreational opportunities is greater now, not only due to leaner economic times but also because of the increasing personal, community, and environmental health issues associated with more sedentary lifestyles and lack of contact with the nature."