By Gwendolyn Craig
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and majority legislative leaders have announced an agreement on a $212 billion budget that includes $1.55 million for addressing visitor use in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The budget is a notable increase from last year’s $193 billion budget. The state Legislature was still reviewing several budget bills Tuesday night, five days after the budget was technically due. Though votes were still pending to make it official, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the budget will accomplish a number of priorities even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Thanks to the state’s strong fiscal management and relentless pursuit to secure the federal support that the pandemic demanded, we not only balanced our budget, we are also making historic investments to reimagine, rebuild and renew New York in the aftermath of the worst health and economic crisis in a century,” Cuomo said in a news release.
Many projects related to the Adirondacks were proposed in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which stayed level at $300 million.
Within that, $1.55 million is slated to go to the Adirondacks and Catskills for “visitor safety and wilderness protection activities to address issues relating to overuse.” Of that funding, up to $800,000 will go to Essex County to address the increase in visitors to the Adirondacks.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said in an email to Adirondack Explorer that he was pleased with the $1.55 million allocated.
“The increased activity is a good problem for our region to have, but it’s certainly a very important one to address,” Stec wrote. “To better manage bigger crowds, help keep people safe, especially along the road, and protect our natural resources all takes financial resources.”
Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, said part of that $800,000 will go to operating a hiker shuttle system that was intended to operate in 2020, but was put on hold due to the pandemic. Gillilland said the county has purchased buses and hired bus drivers, who are all vaccinated, but he is not sure yet if the shuttle system will run this hiking season.
“We’re trying,” Gillilland said, in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “We have some serious safety concerns at the trailheads with operating a 20-passenger bus, drop-off, pick-up on both sides, and with congestion. We certainly don’t want to make safety any harder or make it more dangerous, so we’re trying to get the state to work with us.”
Gillilland hopes that the state may install more pull-offs or reduce parking at some of the trailheads so the buses can operate more safely.
It’s not clear yet how the shuttle system would work either. It will most likely start at Marcy Field, but Gillilland said the county and state are still working out where the second location would be. They’re also working out what the operational hours would be, the number of passengers considering the coronavirus is still of concern and the infrastructure.
Funding from the state budget would also go to developing information campaigns, signs and hiring front country stewards to help visitors at trailheads.
Kevin Chlad, director of government relations for the Adirondack Council, said some of the $1.55 million will also go toward an independently led visitor use management framework for the High Peaks region. This was a recommendation made by the state-appointed High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group in a final report the state Department of Environmental Conservation released last month. In that report, the group recommended the state hire an organization, such as the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, to help create a plan for managing crowds. The center conducted a site visit to the High Peaks in 2019, where it found that crowding, trail degradation, trail erosion, human and pet waste, unprepared visitors and parking were all major issues.
“This is exciting news,” Chlad said, in a phone interview on Tuesday. “The money is there, and we look forward to seeing who the department (DEC) seeks for outside expertise.”
While the increasing popularity of the Adirondacks has been a focus in Essex County, Gillilland was happy to see the state Legislature was going to reappropriate $300,000 to the county for solid waste. Under Gov. George Pataki’s administration, Gillilland said, landfills were prohibited in the Adirondack Park. The county has been trucking its solid waste to Franklin County. In an agreement over the past two decades, the state has paid Essex County $300,000 to help with the cost of doing that.
“The 20-year deal was up,” Gillilland said. “We lobbied hard to continue that.”
Gillilland said he believes he will have to lobby to keep that money in the budget year-to-year, but he hopes the state continues to pay the county. Much of Essex County’s solid waste, he said, comes from state offices and visitors to the Adirondacks.
Invasive species management will also get quite a few dollars, especially for projects in the Adirondack Park. The Lake George Park Commission is slated to get a renewal of its $450,000 to combat Eurasian watermilfoil. Cornell University’s Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Initiative is also slated to get $500,000 for its work. The program has focused its efforts on the eastern shores of Lake George, where a new infestation of the invasive bug has threatened the most popular tree in the watershed.
State lawmakers also gave a nod to water-quality projects, budgeting $500 million in the budget. The large sum will go toward a number of initiatives including road salt management, municipal stormwater and sewer projects, wastewater treatment and more.
Some more highlights include:
- $1.5 million for addressing greenhouse gas emissions outside of the power sector;
- $4.5 million for a pilot climate resilient farms program;
- $10.3 million for climate smart communities projects;
- $30 million for land acquisition;
- $180,000 to Paul Smith’s College’s Visitor Interpretive Center;
- $120,000 to the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry for its Adirondack visitor interpretive center; and
- $250,000 for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. The initiative had hoped to double its budget to $500,000 in order to hire more staff.
Both houses of the Legislature supported the $3 billion environmental bond act, which will appear before voters in November 2022. The bond act was passed last year, but the Cuomo administration pulled it from ballots, citing the state’s financial concerns during the pandemic. State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, is the chair of the Senate’s Finance Committee. She said Tuesday afternoon that last year’s provision allowing the state budget director to pull the bond act from the ballot was removed this time.
“You never know when there will be a new crisis,” Krueger said and added, “we should be able to get this to voters in the November general election in 2022.”
The budget bill that included the bond act had not been released as of 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
The bond act was not mentioned in the Cuomo administration’s press release announcing the budget agreement.