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Enhance state parks Albany should act to fund system at levels that allow improvements

This month's change in state leadership offers a chance to reshape the way New York's state parks system is being managed. In recent years, state officials have sought public-private partnerships to augment essentially flat park funding by Albany. The Spitzer administration can either continue or redefine park management.

Some attention is needed. Parks & Trails New York, an advocacy group trying to gain more funding for the state parks system, recently released a study detailing visits to 36 of New York's 176 state parks last summer. "Parks at a Turning Point -- Restoring and Enhancing New York's State Park System," describes such problems as badly deteriorated restrooms at heavily used parks, essential visitor facilities shut down because of health or other problems, roadways and parking lots broken up and full of pot holes, erosion problems and buildings that need paint and new roofs.

The report shows state support for the parks system has been essentially flat for more than a decade, resulting in what the authors argue is at least a $140 million backlog of infrastructure projects. According to the report, the 2006-07 budget for New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, although more than $244.3 million, is just one-fifth of 1 percent of the state's total budget. The agency operates parks with more than 325,000 acres, 5,000 buildings, 27 golf courses, 8,355 campsites and 1,350 miles of trails. The advocacy group takes a dim view on what it deems an over-reliance on private resources.

But state parks officials make a good case for private investment and partnership, which help protect taxpayers and keep fees affordable. The state agency is trying to prevent general fund increases that would result in higher fees, or additional taxpayer burden.

And the advocacy group, state officials say, omits state-run historic sites. The Pataki administration committed $12 million to the Darwin Martin House and $3.2 million to the Old Fort Niagara visitor's center in Youngstown. Some $44 million over the past few years has gone to work in Niagara Falls, the bulk of that at Niagara Falls State Park, and new parks have been acquired, including Woodlawn Beach State Park.

That kind of commitment is both commendable and welcome, and the Spitzer administration would do well to expand on such efforts as resources allow. Fiscal restraints may override Parks & Trails' recommendation for a $300 million, five-year capital plan for state parks, but its call for Albany to ensure that taxpayer support for parks grows at least in pace with growth in the general fund merits support, as does its call for strengthening environmental stewardships, visitor education and information, increasing the commitment of Environmental Protection Fund resources to the parks and lands stewardship fund, developing a comprehensive parks marketing plan to increase attendance, providing better educational materials on the parks and developing a network of volunteer park support organizations.

An appealing state parks system is a valuable quality-of-life marketing tool for a state trying to retain residents and attract new ones. Funding that system at levels that allow enhancement is a challenge, but one a new Spitzer administration parks department ought to overcome.

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