State budget includes $8M for Adirondacks, Catskills visitor safety and wilderness
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondacks and Catskills are slated for $8 million for visitor safety and wilderness protection in the $220 billion state budget legislators passed on Saturday.
The money will come from out of the $400 million environmental protection fund, which was increased by $100 million from last year’s budget.
Cathy Pedler, director of advocacy for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said the funding is earmarked for trail safety and resiliency projects, education, trailhead infrastructure “and to implement recommendations of the High Peaks and Catskills Strategic Planning Advisory Groups.” Both of those groups brainstormed strategies for managing visitors amid the uptick in people getting outdoors.
The funding was $2 million less than what environmental and local organizations advocated for, but many were pleased with the outcome. Pedler said she was thrilled. ADK and 25 other outdoor recreation and conservation organizations and municipalities led the call for the funding.
The alliance of organizations included familiar voices like that of the Adirondack Council, The Nature Conservancy and ADK. It also included John Brown Lives!, Outdoor Afro, Hamilton County, and a number of Catskills-area groups, to name a few.
In a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul on Dec. 10, the coalition jointly asked for $10 million “to fund trail maintenance and building work as well as to expand educational outreach on preparedness, safety, Leave No Trace education, inclusivity at frontcountry campgrounds and backcountry summits, and recreation infrastructure in Park Towns and Villages. This funding would also ensure that there are adequate temporary public bathroom facilities at trailheads and parking lots.”
In addition to the $8 million, the budget allocates up to $600,000 for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to procure “a visitor use management framework that will serve as a tool to guide future management and stewardship decision-making for the Adirondack and Catskill Parks.” This was recommended by the Catskills and High Peaks advisory groups. The DEC said it will likely request proposals later this year.
“Protect the Adirondacks cheers one of the busiest and most important budget seasons for the Adirondacks in years,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. “We’re pleased the Legislature highlighted Adirondack and Catskill Wilderness with $8 million in the EPF and will support pilot projects on Visitor Use Management Framework strategies.” The framework is expected to complement actions DEC took last year, including appointing two people to serve as coordinators for the Adirondacks and Catskills in the department’s effort to manage sustainable use.
Dave Gibson cautioned that “the underlying challenge here is that DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency have been working on this framework for two years and it is still not finalized.” Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said part of what’s taking so long is the lack of DEC and APA staff. Planners, Gibson said, “are frequently stymied from taking new initiatives without permission on every detail being received from above. That needs to stop.”
Additional funding for the Adirondacks, environment
In addition to the $8.6 million, the DEC received $4 million for “stewardship of newly acquired and existing state lands.”
Other notable Adirondacks-related funding includes $29 million for the Adirondack Park Agency’s headquarters, $2.1 million for the Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute, $500,000 for an Adirondack lakes survey, $500,000 to Adirondack Architectural Heritage for the management of Camp Santanoni Historic Area and $300,000 to the Adirondack North Country Association for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.
Environmental organizations in the Adirondacks and across the state rejoiced over a $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act that made it into the budget. Voters will decide on that borrowing in November.
The budget provides $500 million for clean water infrastructure and $500 million in offshore wind development, and establishes stronger protections for freshwater wetlands. The measure will include updating wetlands maps and reducing the size threshold of regulated wetlands.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, spoke against the wetlands updates last week as lawmakers rushed to finalize the budget. Stec said he agreed that the current regulations are not working and that Adirondack Park homeowners use wetlands regulations as a weapon against each other. The update, Stec said, makes an already difficult process more restrictive.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Stec said. “I think it’s excessive regulation.”
Groups like The Nature Conservancy applauded the change, however, noting that wetlands “provide critical habitat for wildlife and flood protection for communities.”
The Open Space Institute hailed the budget’s $250 million “to improve state parks and make them more welcoming to the public.” Kim Elliman, president and CEO, noted that a decade ago the state budget was $29 million for the care and upkeep of the state’s more than 200 parks.
New push for rural broadband
Hochul and lawmakers agreed to invest $1 billion for broadband and fund the ConnectALL initiative. The goal is to “deliver affordable broadband to millions of New Yorkers as well as boost economic growth and local innovation,” Hochul’s office said.
The budget nixed a fee for laying high-speed fiber cables along state highways, which Hochul’s administration said will lower “the cost of high-speed broadband deployment to expand access to upstate communities.”
In a newsletter, Stec said eliminating the fee was important as it “has impeded rural broadband construction for too long.”
It was a long wait for the public to see the Adirondacks-specific projects after lawmakers passed the budget nine days late. Several bumps blocked earlier passage including pushback against Hochul’s $600 million state commitment, part of a $1.4 billion deal, to fund a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills football team.
Republicans criticized the Democratic governor’s budget negotiating process and the record amount of spending. Some Democrats, too, were critical of the stadium deal.
Hochul, who is seeking reelection this year, held a press conference on Thursday without the state Senate and Assembly majority leaders to announce the budget was done, though nothing had yet passed.
“This budget is a blueprint for the future,” Hochul said on Thursday. “It is an embodiment of that dream. Not only are we going to recover from the ravages of the pandemic, but we’re going to emerge from it even stronger.”
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said the budget “process remains as broken and dysfunctional as ever.”
“The final spending plan was bloated, more than a week late and required an emergency extender to ensure state employees received paychecks and government continued to function,” Barclay wrote in a news release.
Some government watchdog groups agreed that the budget process was flawed. The New York Public Interest Research Group said the spending plan “was negotiated almost entirely behind closed doors—leaving the public and many of the lawmakers in the dark.”
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