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FIELD NOTES: SAFEGUARDING THE WILD

A Surplus State Budget, An Environmental Deficit

By David Gibson


DEC Commissioner Joe Martens dedicates a new addition to the Forest Preserve above Lake George in 2013. Photo © Dave Gibson

Given Governor Andrew Cuomo’s projected $2 billion surplus, his environmental agencies could have used a bit of a budgetary boost.
One can always hope. But readers already know this is not the case. Cuomo’s Environmental Conservation Commissioner, Joe Martens, made it explicit when he testified recently to legislative committees “Basically, this is a flat budget staff-wise,” he told legislators who politely questioned why his DEC budget appeared to be cut $43 million.

“Those dollars were non-reoccurring federal pass-through funds,” the commissioner answered. “Those are not cuts to our operating funds.” When questioned about the apparent loss of staff, the commissioner answered that those were DEC information technology personnel moved to a central IT office in Albany.
When federal funds run out on an important program and a demonstrated need exists one would hope a Governor would add some of that non-reoccurring money back into the budget. I respect the Commissioner and his staff, but a $43 million cut is a cut in the face of unmet needs. In a time of great environmental stresses and a projected budget surplus, the DEC budget has declined. The graph of environmental budgetary needs and state agency resources crossed years ago and has simply flattened out a bit since Andrew Cuomo took office.

When Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Robert Sweeney asked Commissioner Martens if this year’s budget would make a dent in a $70 billion backlog of combined sewage treatment and water supply infrastructure needs statewide, the commissioner stressed the ongoing revolving loan fund available to address these needs. “But those are loans, the Chairman politely replied, not grants, and they are in the millions, not billions. How are we going to make progress when cash-strapped municipalities cannot pay back these loans? “Yes, this is a status quo budget” the commissioner admitted.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner noted to the legislature that the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) went up by $4 million, to $157 million overall. But the $ 4 million increase was statutorily required in last year’s budget agreement. Yes, we can thank the Governor for agreeing to that increase last year, but this year he appears to have looked out on New York’s landscape, seascape, shorelines, its damaged rivers and streams, its urban parks, its zoos and botanical gardens, its strategically important watershed forests, all of which return $7 for every $1 invested (2012 Trust for Public Land Study), and saw no need to increase this dedicated fund which stood at $250 million in 2007.

Over 100 organizations recently pointed out in a letter to the Governor and Legislature that the dedicated funding source for the EPF, the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT), which declined during the recession, is back to adding a billion dollars annually to the state’s coffers. Yet, the small percentage of that RETT that goes to the EPF has flatlined.

When a dedicated revenue source for the environment gains, why doesn’t the environment?

As for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), they are barely holding on to 52 staff responsible for a six-million acre Park. APA is responsible for long-range planning for the Park. Most of their planning staff was cut years ago, and has never been replaced.

The public agencies we entrust to anticipate, analyze and help solve environmental problems seem on a permanent downward trajectory. We have moved through the era of steep cuts and layoffs during the great recession and are well into the era of retirements, slow attrition and very, very selective fills of open positions.

Here is how Adirondack Wild put the issue in its written testimony to the Legislature about the Executive Budget:

“The lack of emphasis and status quo budgets for the Environmental Protection Fund, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Adirondack Park Agency reflect an unfortunate and stubborn tendency in our body politic that sees natural resource protection and stewardship of our natural world as needing to be “balanced” with community development and economic growth. This is a completely wrong-headed approach, as the basic premise upon which these choices are made is seriously flawed. You and your committees are very aware that a foundation of healthy and vibrant human communities is a sound ecological infrastructure. Many of the problems that have emerged within the state have their genesis in the loss of both respect and value for the green infrastructure that undergirds our cities, towns, villages and suburbs. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene and Storm Sandy are poignant examples of the suppression of the green infrastructure in favor of the built infrastructure. Moving forward it is critical to understand the complementary roles that each infrastructure plays in the future and prosperity of the state.”

What follows is the rest of Adirondack Wild’s statement on the budget:

Environmental Protection Fund: The Executive Budget only increases the EPF by $4 million, and none of that small increase comes through the statutory source of the EPF, the Real Estate Transfer Tax which given the uptick in the state’s economy is accruing at the rate of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. While we appreciate the Governor’s and Legislature’s support for the EPF over the last two fiscal years, the need to protect forest land, seashores, wetlands, lakes, rivers, farms, local agriculture, water supplies, and prevent the spread of aquatic and other invasive plant and animal species in the Adirondack North Country far outstrips the proposed $157 million. These natural resources are the lifeblood of many communities providing clean air and water, outdoor recreation, tourism and quality of life enhancement. In 2008, the EPF annual budget stood at $255 million, with a demonstrated need then of $500 million which has only grown following Hurricanes Irene, Lee and Storm Sandy. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land shows the EPF delivers significant economic returns—$7 for every $1 invested. EPF programs support New York’s $13 billion outdoor tourism industry and farms that contribute $23 billion to the state’s economy. These programs also safeguard our drinking water supplies, support our robust tourism industry, and help redevelop community parks and waterfronts connecting people with nature. We ask the Legislature to increase the budget’s EPF appropriation to $200 million in FY 2014-15.

Department of Environmental Conservation: While the overall DEC budget is increased by less than 1%, the Legislature has to view this flat budget in the context of steep cuts to DEC staff of more than 20 % since 1998 and cuts to non-personnel service (NPS) budgets of more than 40 % since 2008. NPS cuts of such magnitude make it impossible for state foresters, forest rangers, fish and wildlife technicians, real property surveyors, stream biologists and so many others to serve the public, safeguard the environment and honor legislative statutes fundamental to the state’s ecological and economic health.

The NYS DEC Forest Rangers will illustrate our point. A similar case could be made for DEC foresters, fish and wildlife professionals, surveyors, etc. In 1963, 106 Forest Rangers patrolled 2.3 million acres of our Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. Today, fifty years later the same authorized number of Rangers is required to patrol, educate and protect the public and enforce laws on twice the acreage: 5,069,000 acres (a combination of Forest Preserve, Wildlife Management Areas, State Forests, Conservation Easements, New York City Access Lands).

If nothing is done and retirements are not replaced with new recruits, within five years the total number of field Rangers will drop below 90 for the entire state. Some will be expected to patrol hundreds of thousands of acres, an impossible task. Meanwhile, the expansion of laws and enhanced degree of training required in public safety and law enforcement have greatly magnify the responsibilities required of each Ranger.

Operations and Non-Personal Service (NPS) budgets for the Division of Forest Rangers are dangerously low. Costs previously born by General Fund are now charged to the Rangers. Rangers have NPS funds of just over $1 million – of which more than $800,000 is needed just to run and maintain their vehicles to travel the large distances they must cover. New Ranger recruits from the 2013 Ranger Academy cannot be properly equipped given this NPS cash shortage. New Assistant Forest Rangers cannot be hired to help educate and protect the public on our public lands.

We expect our DEC field staff to do much. For example, in 2012 Forest Rangers performed 162 search missions, 101 rescue missions, made 66,000 inspections of trailheads, 14,000 inspections of campsites, patrolled 18,000 miles of trails and waterways, inspected 2000 miles of state boundary lines, issued 1700 tickets or arrests, and made 60 educational presentations to 7,000 people. They also issued 220 new guide licenses, checked credentials for 250 existing guides, responded to 2000 calls for service or complaints, and helped other agencies on 581 other incidents. Then they also suppressed 175 forest fires, issued 3700 burning permits, trained 1400 people in wildlife control, conducted 53 fire prevention events, and issued 107 fire prevention tickets.

We ask for a modest increase in DEC personnel this year. For instance, by increasing the Forest Ranger force to 150 authorized positions (from 134 today) you would allow for the inevitable retirements and attrition, and signal recognition of the vastly increased acreage and complexity of Ranger responsibilities today vs. 50 years ago. We ask the Legislature to fund the small amount ($200,000 annually) for Assistant Rangers so critical to public health and safety on our public lands. We also ask that steep cuts in all DEC NPS budgets end and that modest increases be made or the performance of all field staff is threatened, with real impacts to environment, public health and safety.

Adirondack Park Agency: A flat budget for the APA should remind the Legislature of all that it expects of the APA in the statute. The Adirondack Park Agency Act calls for protection and preservation of the natural and open space resources of the Adirondack Park. Businesses, employment and visitation which capitalize upon the natural values of the Adirondack Park result in hundreds of millions of dollars in monetized and non-monetized values to Park counties and communities. Yet, many of the Legislature’s statutory expectations cannot be realized without new fiscal resources and staff at the APA. The APA is the smallest state agency, yet responsible for land use regulation and planning in 20% of the entire state. Today, there are just two staffers in the APA Planning Division, yet the Legislature long ago named the APA as a regional planning agency responsible for long-range planning on six million acres. APA has no budget to compile a park-wide data base in order to aid the decision-making of all agencies in the Park, as well as local governments, resource managers and private landowners. Such a data base and analysis of Park wide trends was attempted in 2000 to “aid the understanding of how Park natural and cultural resources have changed over the years, and allow for projections about the future of the resources.” Yet, this logical set of planning tools to permit projections and future planning activity was abandoned in 2002 for lack of resources. In an era of climate change, we cannot know where the globally important Adirondack Park is headed without a park-wide data base and analysis of trends in the Park’s natural resources, climate, and communities. APA has the statutory responsibility, but lacks the resources to undertake it. The overall APA budget – now just over $4 million – must be increased commensurate with a renewed planning mission. To undertake this essential work, the Agency must regain 80% of the planning staff it has lost in recent years. We ask the Legislature to restore the Agency’s planning budget.


Posted 02/25/14
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08/12/14 Dave Gibson: The Challenges of ‘Wild Forest’ Areas read more >
07/30/14 Zip-Line Will Scar Adirondack Mountain
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07/01/14 Essex Chain Plan: Does It Comply? Does Anyone Care? read more >
06/03/14 Decision Time for Wilderness Mining 
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05/02/14 Adirondack Club and Resort Update: Appellate Court Oral Arguments read more >
05/02/14 Adirondack Club and Resort Update: Appellate Court Oral Arguments read more >
04/02/14 David Sive: Wild Nature’s Legal Champion
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03/18/14 Lake George Zipline Project Will Scar French Mountain  read more >
02/25/14 A Surplus State Budget, An Environmental Deficit  read more >
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The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

Top left, Moose River ©2010 Ken Rimany; Field Notes photographs ©2011 Ken Rimany. Wild Action Now photograph ©2011 David Gibson

ADIRONDACK PARK REGIONAL
Peter Brinkley, Honorary Chair
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Terry Jandreau, Chair
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