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A westward vision? Local officials hope new state parks chief will reinvigorate Niagara Falls State Park

The first thing Carol Ash did after being confirmed as the new state parks commissioner Wednesday was to get in a car and drive to Niagara Falls.

As she toured Niagara Falls State Park on Thursday, many people in the Buffalo Niagara region had one question for her: Does Ash have the same sense of direction as her vehicle?

Local officials have complained for years that the state has drained more money from the most popular state park than it has put back into it, keeping the park at a competitive disadvantage with its Canadian neighbor.

With Democrat Eliot L. Spitzer as governor and the confirmation of Ash as parks commissioner, hopes are high for new blood and a new vision in the Western District headquarters near the brink of the falls.

As Ash stood at Terrapin Point in Prospect Park, looking over the Horseshoe Falls and the Niagara Falls, Ont., skyline, she made her vision clear.

"We can be an exciting destination without huge skyscrapers and amusement parks," she said. "We have our own unique natural character."

Ash was awed by Goat Island, Three Sisters Islands and other pristine corners of the park and that's the direction, she said, Niagara Falls State Park should take.

She said she will ask the State Legislature for $70 million to $100 million to implement a statewide parks improvement program during the next seven years that will include major renovations to buildings and infrastructure and new development in Niagara Falls State Park.

"State parks are an enormously valuable effort," she said.

The new commissioner's point person in the Niagara Region, which stretches from the Pennsylvania state line to Rochester, will be the Western District director.

Ash will soon name a replacement for Republican Edward J. Rutkowski, a former Erie County executive and Buffalo Bills receiver who has held the job for 12 years.

"We're going to be laying more responsibility on the regional director," Ash said. "That person will be the eyes and ears of all the policies in the region. He or she will be on the ground to jump-start development in the Niagara region."

Ash said she believes firmly in the importance of educational and interpretive programs in the state's historic sites and parks.

The proposed Niagara Experience Center, a multimillion-dollar museum complex that would be built near the falls, is an excellent example of the type of project Ash said she would encourage.

Mayor Vince Anello, who had dinner with Ash at the Top of the Falls Restaurant in Prospect Park on Thursday, liked what he heard.

"We don't want to be like the other side," he agreed, referring to Niagara Falls, Ont. "We offer people an intimate experience of the falls and the natural surroundings."

Anello said he was encouraged to hear that the new commissioner plans to work more closely with local government.

"We've always had a relationship with the state, but what we've been starving for is a melding of the state and the city in a seamless transition."

Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest in the nation, attracts more visitors than the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park combined.

Yet, the jewel in the crown of the state parks system has been ignored and neglected over the years, advocates say. "The state has turned a deaf ear to our concerns," said Paul A. Dyster, a leading environmental activist whose many memberships include a seat on the Niagara River Greenway Commission. "There has been a huge divide between Albany and the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls."

Ash said she wants to turn that around, expressing an "ambitious vision" for the Buffalo Niagara region.

"We need to forge connections through green corridors, trailways, bike paths and waterways," she said, expressing the broad concept of the Greenway Plan.

Ash will preside over 176 state parks, 35 historic sites and thousands of campsites and nature trails that collectively attract 60 million visitors a year.

It's a daunting job. Buildings and facilities in the parks system statewide continue to deteriorate, she said, amounting to a $300 million backlog in renovations to buildings, infrastructure and new projects over the past 10 years. Yet the entire state parks budget for fiscal 2007-08 is just over $280 million.

Ash brings with her an extensive background of park stewardship.

She most recently was executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which manages more than 100,000 acres in New York and New Jersey. Before that, she was state director of The Nature Conservancy, a leading conservation organization dedicated to protecting ecologically important lands and waters. Ash helped preserve Sterling Forest and succeeded in acquiring 15,000 acres of Whitney Park in the Adirondacks.

As Ash walked briskly from Prospect Park on her whirlwind tour of the Buffalo Niagara region, she turned and said, "See you in May -- and June and July. I love this place."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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