Planning for future of recreation resources a challenge in hard times

Every five years since 1965, the state has reviewed and updated its plan for maintaining, expanding and improving its network of parks, forests, trails and other facilities. The process is under way again–but this time with some significant financial constraints to overcome.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is holding the first of a series of public meetings tonight to talk about the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, or SCORP, which is required for the state to receive money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

beach--silver sands

The boardwalk at Silver Sands beach in Milford was one of the projects included in the 2005 recreation plan

The process began late, so final recommendations are expected to be less extensive than the usual several-hundred-page blueprint. A few groups among the many with stakes in SCORP continue to feel they have been shortchanged. And of course all of it is against a backdrop of diminished and diminishing financial resources likely to make accomplishing the costlier aspects of any plan more problematic.

“Foremost in everyone’s mind, just because of the economic challenges we’re facing, is funding for open space acquisition,” said Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs for Audubon Connecticut. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, she said noting that Rocky Neck State Park was acquired during the Great Depression. “During an economic downturn when you can leverage a dollar, there are great opportunities that might not otherwise be there.”

Audubon Connecticut is part of a coalition called the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, one of about two dozen groups–from traditional recreation enthusiasts to educational programs to governmental entities–that form the advisory board for SCORP. Their meetings, fewer than usual this cycle, are designed to air concerns and needs as well as review accomplishments.

In the past five years, successes include expansion of the boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park in Milford and a new ticket booth and restroom at Peoples State Forest in Barkhamsted – both projects using federal LWCF funds. Land acquisition was substantial, using federal and state funds for purchases directly by the state and for grants to municipal governments, nonprofits and others to buy land.

But Breslin pointed out that some of those achievements were due to one-time funding opportunities, and that the funding level for the usual open space protection programs has fallen from about $42 million in 2003 to possibly no more than $8 million this year. And the fact that outdoor recreation accounts for well below one percent of the state’s overall spending is of concern to many outdoor advocates.

Tonight when the SCORP process begins the first of four public forums over 10 days, the goal will be hear the public’s priorities and concerns about the future of the state’s 107 state parks, 32 state forests, thousands of miles of trails and countless facilities to go with them.

There is a draft outline, said Tom Tyler, director of Connecticut state parks for DEEP. But he said the agency is not trying to steer the outcome: “We’re not loading kind of straw man conclusions looking for people to react to those pro or con.

“We want to hear from people and stakeholders on development of recreation and prioritizations,” he said.

Members of the public also will be able to comment through online tools and surveys. Tyler, who has been in his position for two years, though with the department for 14, said it’s the public that alerts them to under-met needs like urban fishing access and new activity trends like geocaching–a kind of GPS-based treasure hunt activity–and stand up paddle surfing, which is exactly what it sounds like.

“I’m not sure I could do it,” he chuckled. “The growth of that sport is off the charts–hundreds of percents a year.

“In some ways it’s kind of an arcane state process,” he said of the SCORP updates. “But it really does touch everybody to one degree or another. We think we know a lot, but we learn a lot more when we hear people’s comments.”

That said, there are priority items for DEEP. At Hammonasset Beach State Park, for instance, erosion is jeopardizing the west beach bathhouse, which now needs to be rebuilt further from the water, and the dunes in the area also need to be dealt with.

No Child Left Inside, the state’s effort to help keep kids and families connected with the outdoors in an increasingly computer and indoor-centric world, was a new initiative in the 2005 SCORP. Tyler would like to expand its programs and extend its sweep throughout the year.

That’s a real key said Breslin. “We’re very concerned that people are losing that connection to the natural world and when that happens people don’t protect what they don’t love and understand.”

Members of the advisory board generally like the SCORP process and its goals, but are also realistic.

“It’s more thinking after SCORP,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association best known for its advocacy for trails, who called the economic situation “brutal” for recreation. “After we say these are our priorities, are we going to actually invest in them?”

Hammerling is also concerned about the threatened elimination of the Recreational Trails Program, which presently handles about $1 million a year from the federal government for trails (about $11 million total since it began in 1993), because of expected personnel cutbacks in the state budget currently in place. He and others pointed to the economic, jobs and other cost-effective benefits of investing in outdoor recreation. “There are benefits to public health, eco-tourism, local economies, healthy livable communities,” he said. “Those are all affected by how we protect our landscape and provide access to it.”

But a number of groups said access for their enthusiasts has not improved, and in some cases left them feeling like second-class recreational citizens.

Mountain bikers have long complained that they are often excluded from trails. “More of an arbitrary thing than one where there’s a definite reason,” said Charlie Beristain, of Bike Walk Connecticut and the Connecticut chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. “All these facilities — whether parks or trails — are meant to be multi-use: horses and cyclers and Frisbee players, but there doesn’t seem to be a process that includes as many of those users as possible.”

Diane Ciano, who chairs the trail committee of the Connecticut Horse Council, has had the same complaint. “Don’t forget about us,” she said. “We’re a historic user group and want to be recognized.”

Ciano pointed to the case of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail that was paved and is no longer usable for horses. She said while horses are allowed in all state parks and forests unless otherwise noted, often there is no trailer access or parking, and signage is confusing.

But those who have felt most left-out are all terrain vehicle–ATV–enthusiasts, 70,000 strong. More than half of them own the 4-wheel variety known as quads.

“There’s not one place in all of Connecticut, which has 40,000 quads, to legally ride,” said Jerry Shinners, administrator of the New England Trail Riders Association. “So where do they go? Illegally wherever in the state they want.”

That illegal riding as well as flouting of registration requirements is an open secret known to DEEP, but the two sides have been at odds despite policy put in place several years ago to set aside ATV land.

Shinners would like to see a system like the one in Massachusetts where there are six quad accessible areas and all vehicles are licensed. “Not only do you control illegal riding,” he said. “You can control the environmental damage as well.”

The meetings are scheduled for tonight at Sessions Woods in Burlington, Thursday at Fort Trumbull in New London, Aug. 16 at UConn in Storrs and Aug. 18 at the Kellogg Environmental Center in Derby. All meetings run from 7 to 10 p.m. For directions and other information on the meetings, or to comment online or by email, go to