Legislators fear budget cuts taking their toll on CT’s parks

A lake scene at Bigelow Hollow State Park

Connecticut DEEP

A lake scene at Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union

A coalition of state legislators fear that budget cuts are taking their toll on Connecticut’s parks.

But the Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s Sportsmen’s Caucus conceded Wednesday she’s uncertain how much can be done to fix the situation, given state government’s ongoing fiscal woes.

At a minimum though, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said, lawmakers are seeking assurances that basic safety and sanitation standards are being maintained, including at parks facing closure.

And the state administrator responsible for park oversight also said Wednesday that, while the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is prepared to work with legislators this summer, park closures and reduced services there — to some degree — are unavoidable.

“Our caucus has a number of questions related to safety and security at the parks that are slated to be closed,” said Osten, who heads a coalition of about 15 legislators focused on camping, fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation issues.

Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, the House chair of the Sportsmen’s Caucus, said members understand the department faced a cut in the new state budget that begins Friday. “It may well be that these particular changes are the best course of action for the agency to take,” he said. “However, we have significant questions about the process through which these decisions were arrived at and the long-lasting impacts of some of those decisions on the community.”

Trying to close a nearly $1 billion hole in 2016-17 finances without raising taxes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature ordered cuts in most state agencies last month when they adopted a $19.76 billion overall state budget for the new fiscal year.

The $63.9 million budget for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is down 3.3 percent from the outgoing fiscal year, but is 10.5 percent less than DEEP was slated to receive in the preliminary 2016-17 budget adopted 12 months ago.

Faced with those cutbacks, the department announced last week that after the July 4 weekend — traditionally its busiest of the year — it would close its three least-used campgrounds:

  • Devils Hopyard in East Haddam;
  • Salt Rock in the Baltic section of Sprague;
  • And Greens Falls in Voluntown.

All other state parks and forest campgrounds will close after Labor Day with the exception of campgrounds at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison and Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, which close after the Columbus Day weekend.

The department also announced reductions in:

  • Lifeguard services at beaches;
  • Park lawn mowing and other maintenance;
  • And operating hours at park museums and nature centers.

“I understand there are going to be cuts,” Osten said. “But are we checking on areas that are closed? Are people camping there anyway? Are parks still being kept safe?”

The new budget also directs the Malloy administration to find nearly $200 million in savings across all agencies and departments after the fiscal year begins — raising the prospect of more service cutbacks in parks and campgrounds.

A dumpster at Bigelow Hollow State Park in Union

A dumpster at Bigelow Hollow State Park

Union First Selectman Albert “Andy” Goodhall reached out to DEEP officials last week after photographing a dumpster overflowing with trash near the boat ramp at Bigelow Hollow State Park in his community.

“We’ve got bears and animals around that love that kind of thing,” Goodhall said.

DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen, who oversees environmental conservation programs, said the department has reduced maintenance spending, but not trash collection. The waste problem at Bigelow Hollow, she added, was caused by a new dumpster that was difficult for users to open, and it is being replaced.

Whalen noted that the new state budget wasn’t resolved until mid-May, leaving DEEP officials with just a few weeks to adjust to the spending cuts before the July 4 rush.

“We faced a really substantial cut to our operating budget,” she said, “and our immediate focus, frankly, is getting through the busiest weekend of the year.”

Osten said lawmakers want to be assured that these cuts make financial sense. “Do they at least break even?” she said. “Do they cost us money?”

For example, she said, a cut to the state’s fish hatcheries programs could reduce lake and pond-stocking efforts, and ultimately weaken revenues from state fishing licensing efforts, such as the new trout stamp program.

Legislators also want to know if cuts to programs and services might be restored — even in part — if the state enters into temporary partnerships with municipalities or private, nonprofit conservation groups, Osten said.

Sportsmen’s Caucus members “have always been very willing and interested in working with us, and we’re certainly going to continue in that vein,” Whalen said, adding that DEEP officials would meet later this summer with legislators, municipal officials and any park friends groups interested in discussing budget options.

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