In 1995, a governor passionate about nature took office in sunny economic times and named an energetic Long Islander his parks commissioner.
Over the next dozen years, George Pataki and Bernadette Castro expanded the state park system more than anyone since the days of legendary parks chief Robert Moses decades earlier. They added 28 parks, nine on Long Island.
But after appearing at almost annual ribbon-cuttings here, the powerful team was unable to deliver increased funding to pay for the expansion they championed, a failure that some observers say has made the system vulnerable now that the state's finances have soured.
"The agency was already thinly staffed and funded before the budget reductions began in 2008 as a result of the expansion of the system," said Andrew Beers, executive deputy parks commissioner. From 1994 to 2006, the department's operating budget - adjusted for inflation - was flat, and staff levels steadily eroded.
With the state now facing an $8.2-billion deficit, Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed a $29-million cut to the state parks budget. The plan could shut down 91 parks and historic sites statewide, including 10 on the Island.
Even if the Pataki-Castro expansion has made the parks system more vulnerable, parks supporters and other observers say the story is not that simple. Funding problems have gnawed at the agency for years, they say, and parks are easy political pickings because they lack a powerful statewide lobby, such as the teachers union. Even now, education and health care groups have mounted major lobbying campaigns as the budget is considered.
"There is no analogous entity supporting parks or most other areas of the budget," said Robert Ward, deputy director of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany. "And the legislature is very well aware of that."
Beers said it is impossible to say whether closings could have been averted if the system had not expanded under Pataki. Robin Dropkin, executive director of the statewide advocacy group Parks & Trails New York, disagrees. "Even without that expansion, they'd still be hurting and parks would still be closing now," she said.
Defending her record
Castro, now a member of the Long Island State Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission, defends the record of the Pataki administration. She said much of the new parkland was donated or already in state hands, such as Cold Spring Harbor, Trail View and Nissequogue River state parks (all now proposed to be closed).
She said the new parks didn't create a big financial burden because most were unimproved - except for Brentwood and Nissequogue, which have playing fields and buildings. "It didn't create an infrastructure problem," she said. "We put a small picnic shelter here and there, but it gave the public access."
Castro also defends funding for parks in general, and says the agency was never "treated like a stepchild" under Pataki - or any other previous governor. But some longtime hands disagree.
Audubon New York executive director Al Caccese, who held top parks administrative positions during the Carey, Cuomo and Pataki administrations, said "there has been a lack of operating funds, staff and, most significantly, preventive maintenance and infrastructure rehabilitation for 35 years I've been in Albany."
The parks department is facing a 16 percent budget cut next year. State figures show that the budgets for this year and next leave parks with a 22.6 percent cut, compared with a 12.5-percent reduction for the Department of Environmental Conservation. By contrast, proposed budget figures show a 1.3-percent increase for the health department and a 2.7-percent bump for motor vehicles. Some smaller departments are getting two-year increases of up to 38.7 percent.
Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the tourism and parks committee, said the proposed closings are primarily the result of "disproportionate budget cuts. I think politicians have taken park users for granted. Support for the parks has been strong but spread out."
He noted that before he became chairman of the tourism committee last year, the panel's name "did not even include the word parks. It was the only agency that did not have its name in a committee name in the Assembly."
Englebright even places some of the blame for parks' diminished standing within state government on Moses - the revered, if autocratic, architect of the system. "He did not want any oversight and he did not feel he needed help from an organized public," he said.
When Moses was alive, local parks decision-making was based on Long Island and other regional offices. But three decades ago, that power was transferred to Albany.
Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley, former state parks regional finance director in the late 1980s and early '90s, says local decision-making could have led to economies that might have prevented the proposed closings. "The region had a better handle on it because they were the guys on the ground," he said.
Beers, however, dismissed the idea. No matter "how decisions are made, the resources are still allocated to the parks," he said.
Whatever the reasons for the park agency's funding levels, Dropkin said the proposed closings could have one benefit. "The silver lining is that park users are coming out of the woodwork to protest what is happening," she said. "And hopefully government decision-makers will think twice before threatening to close parks again."
New parks, new costs
From 1995 to 2006, Long Island got nine new state parks. The burden of paying for them is one reason behind the park system's current financial troubles. Here are the parks, the acreage involved and a description of the site.
Trail View State Park, Woodbury, 453.8 acres. Part of Bethpage Parkway right of way.
Cold Spring Harbor State Park, 45 acres. Undeveloped northern extension of Bethpage Parkway.
Brentwood State Park, 52.3 acres. Major soccer and ballfield facility.
Nissequogue River State Park, 517 acres. Marina opportunities, playing field, paddling access to the Nissequogue River.
Jamesport State Park and Preserve, 529.5 acres. One mile of shorefront on Long Island Sound.
Sag Harbor State Park Golf Course, 48.8 acres. Initially acquired as part of the DEC Barcelona Neck acquisition.
Amsterdam Beach State Park, East Hampton, 121.9 acres. Considered a significant natural and historic area.
Shadmoor State Park, Montauk, 65.9 acres. 2,400 feet of oceanfront.
Camp Hero (Sanctuary), Montauk, 754 acres. Considered significant natural system, historic Cold War site.