Groups urge greater state spending for Adirondacks
By Gwendolyn Craig
Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, suggested more forest rangers could be added to the workforce and confirmed that Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed $227 billion budget does not include earmarks made in the past for the Adirondack and Catskill parks.
Many Adirondack Park groups want that funding restored. But Seggos told lawmakers Tuesday that the environmental bond act passed in November could provide assistance.
The new chairs of the state Assembly and Senate’s environmental conservation committees—Sen. Peter Harckham, D-Lewisboro and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan—questioned the state’s environmental agency leader about funding for the state’s forest preserves during a joint budget hearing in Albany.
Harckham specifically asked if there were plans for additional rangers.
The commissioner highlighted last year’s academy and the largest graduating class of 38, and added the state is in early stages of preparing for the next one.
“I expect to replenish ranks of forest ranger and environmental conservation police over the coming year,” Seggos said.
It’s not clear when that could happen, as the proposed budget does not include funding for a new academy.
Several Adirondack Park advocacy groups noted that while ranger ranks are at an all-time high, that would be short-lived due to upcoming retirements and promotions. They praised Hochul’’s proposed 231 new staff at DEC, but most would be hired to work on the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act and the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Two new staff are proposed for the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, despite additional state land acquisitions over the years.
Arthur Perryman, forest ranger and director of forest rangers for the New York State Police Benevolent Association, also asked legislators for equipment funding though he didn’t have a specific number. Rangers currently buy some of their own winter equipment, such as down jackets, he told lawmakers.
“We have to get you down jackets. That makes no sense at all,” said Assemblyman John Lemondes Jr., R-Lafayette.
Visitor safety and stewardship
Glick asked Seggos why funding specific to addressing an increase in visitors to the Adirondacks and Catskills was eliminated. That proposed cut by the governor drew complaints from a number of environmental groups. In the 2022-2023 state budget, $8 million was allocated for visitor safety and stewardship under the $400 million environmental protection fund. That budget also included $600,000 for a visitor use management framework. It was not included in the 2023-2024 proposed budget and groups including the Adirondack Council requested it be added back.
The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the only Adirondack Park group invited to testify in person on Tuesday, requested that money be restored and boosted to $10 million. The money allocated last year, noted ADK’s Director of Advocacy Cathy Pedler, “is being used for educational stewards, trail work, recreational infrastructure including parking and trailheads, water access, accessibility and inclusivity projects and visitor use management planning and implementation.”
Pedler said these are “not one and done projects, but ongoing needs.”
Assemblyman Matthew Simpson, R-Horicon and ranking minority member of the environmental conservation committee, also asked Seggos how the same work might be accomplished without the $8 million.
“There were a lot of partners that really bring this program to where it is in the Adirondacks and Catskills, so without this funding, could you tell us how you’re going to accomplish the same program?” Simpson said.
Seggos said the state’s parks and forest preserves are seeing record visitor numbers and added “we’re channeling our resources into both parks to reduce the impacts.” He did not express concern about the removal of specific Adirondack and Catskill funding and noted the environmental protection fund remained the same amount at $400 million.
“I think, like every year, there’s often an exchange of visions about whether we need to have a line of carve-outs,” Seggos said. “Our commitment to the Catskills or the Adirondacks has only increased every year, dollar by dollar.”
Glick and Simpson asked the commissioner if he envisioned any money from the $4.2 billion environmental bond act being used for the same purposes. “Absolutely,” Seggos responded, adding that the department has done “some early thinking about places we can direct some of those dollars to help address trail and trailhead issues over the years.” Seggos said the bond act will give the DEC “parallel tools.”
Harckham asked Seggos when the public could expect the rules and criteria for allocating the bond act funds to be released for public comment. Seggos said the hope is to release a draft in April or May and launch a public comment period over the summer.
Environmental protection fund
Hochul’s proposed environmental protection fund also received scrutiny from lawmakers and environmental groups, as it transferred some DEC staff salaries to the $400 million pot. Seggos did not know on Tuesday how many positions would be paid under that fund, but said it was not many. A DEC spokesman said there was $16 million in the fund for personnel.
“The EPF does not begin to meet all the state’s environmental needs as it is, without having to pay for staff salaries and costs,” David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said in written testimony. “For 30 years, the EPF’s legislated authorization and appropriations have strictly avoided off-loading of staff salaries and related costs onto this vulnerable environmental revenue stream. This is not the year to start doing so.”
John Bartow Jr., executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association, suggested the state look at increasing the EPF to $500 million. Bartow said the fund has been supportive of land acquisition and would be beneficial to the state’s climate goals. He and several lawmakers also asked the legislature and governor restore $1 million in funding to the Climate and Applied Forest Research Institute at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Several, including ADK, called on lawmakers to increase funding for visitors centers in the Adirondacks. ADK specifically asked for $100,000 for its High Peaks Information Center on Adirondack Loj Road in North Elba, which serves about 100,000 recreators annually. It is the trailhead for a number of popular High Peaks area hikes and received no funding in the proposed executive budget.
The Adirondack Council requested $4 million for the Survey of Climate Change and Adirondack Lakes Ecosystems (SCALE), which was also left out of Hochul’s budget.
The Open Space Institute, Land Trust Alliance and other organizations called on the state to increase the open space account in the state budget to $40 million. Hochul knocked $3 million off of it. Adirondack Park groups are still eyeing John Hendrickson’s 36,000 acres in Long Lake called Whitney Park, one of the last significantly-sized private inholdings left in the park. Protect the Adirondacks proposed the open space budget should be $50 million.
Meme Hanley, New York senior program manager for the Land Trust Alliance, wrote that considering the state is looking to protect 30% of its lands and waters by 2030, the state will need to acquire and protect about 225,000 acres per year over the next 8 years.
“In 2020 DEC acquired 5,413 acres; in 2022 the total acquired was only 4,416 acres,” Hanley wrote. “Land Trusts are currently holding over 95,000 acres of land valued at more than $150 million dollars for the State of New York. This is unsustainable for the land trust community and poses a financial risk to those organizations.”
The joint legislative budget hearing on agriculture, environmental conservation and energy began at 9:30 a.m. and continued into the Valentine’s Day evening. Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger said about 80 people requested to testify at the hearing and lawmakers narrowed that to about 30 people due to time constraints.
In past budget hearings, a contingent of Adirondack Park organizations were able to provide live testimony. This year, most groups besides ADK, found they had to rely on their written testimony to bring their wish list to lawmakers.
Corrections: This article mistakenly said DEC was getting 131 new positions. It is getting 231 news positions and the article has been updated. Also, the original story gave the budget at $237B. It’s $227B.
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