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New York State Parks Agency Dropped the Ball

A great thing about America is its parks, their diversity and their endurance. Communities proudly have parks, as do states and the nation. Those parks preserve natural and cultural assets for future generations, offer places for recreation and foster civic identity.

New York’s state parks and historic preservation system began with acquisition of Gen. George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters in 1850 and the preservation of natural and historic treasures like Niagara Falls.

Later came the Robert Moses era, which was intended to assure outdoor recreational opportunities within reasonable distance for all New Yorkers. Urban and regional state heritage areas broaden that mission explicitly to include sustainable economic development.

Creativity and pride go into the protection of natural and historic treasures as parks. New York courts have protected parks with the public trust doctrine that requires legislative approval before discontinuing or compromising a municipal or state park.

Sadly, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is walking away from responsibility for heritage areas.

These parks, created in our time, were put in jeopardy by former state parks Commissioner Carol Ash during the Paterson administration. In 2008, her deputy commissioner wrote to the state heritage area directors declaring that the “agency’s approved Financial Management Plan for this year includes the end of agency staff support and technical assistance for the Heritage Area program.”

The new parks commissioner, Rose Harvey, has publicly expressed support for heritage areas and has done the bare minimal responsibilities under the law relating to heritage areas. But she has not found a way to the leadership called for in the law creating the state heritage area system.

With strong support from state legislators, local officials and many other public and private leaders, state heritage areas have managed to survive in hard times that have been made harder by the state parks agency. The Susquehanna Heritage Area, for example, recently expanded from 2 cities and village to include more than 35 towns and villages in Broome and Tioga counties. New heritage areas in the concord grape region and the city of Niagara Falls have been established by having their locally prepared management plans approved by the state.

In the early 1980s when the state heritage area law was enacted and the early 1990s there were recessions and cutbacks in state and federal funding. But in both times, state participation in the heritage area partnership continued. Former state parks Commissioner Orin Lehman stated in the face of cutbacks in 1981 that the heritage area concept “will remain valid and achievable”. He did not walk away from it as Carol Ash did.

When the National Park Service held a conference on “Partnerships in Parks & Preservation” in Albany in 1991, these heritage areas were celebrated as “partnership parks.” New York has 18 state heritage areas and 4 of the 49 national heritage areas, including the Erie Canalway, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and Champlain Partnership. A portion of each of these 3 national heritage areas is within the Capital Region.

At that 1991 conference, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo said “government – be it state, federal or local – cannot by itself assure that our most precious historic and natural resources will survive.”

He went on to say, “we now recognize that an entire area or region, like our Hudson River Valley, the Adirondacks or what we now know as the Hudson-Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (also known as the Riverspark heritage area) can constitute in its totality a resource of pre-eminent importance.”

The state heritage area program is codified in the state parks law. The state parks agency was to be the leader of a heritage area system with local governments and private organizations playing significant roles in organizing and managing their heritage areas. State agencies were to assist heritage areas as they pursued their integrated goals of conservation, recreation, education and sustainable development pursuant to management plans approved by the state parks commissioner. Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs and the Riverspark including Troy, Cohoes and five neighboring communities) are state heritage areas.

Throughout New York history, the ball has not been dropped by withholding support and jeopardizing the continuance of an important type of park as our state park agency did with the state heritage program. It should not get away with this dereliction of duty and tradition.

This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union in November 2012.