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Safeguard Niagara's park New state commissioner's enthusiasm is good, but a key appointment remains

Newly appointed State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash recently declared her newfound fondness for Niagara Falls. That enthusiasm is welcome, but there's still a major question left unanswered by the state -- whether her new regional point person in the Niagara region will be a purely political appointee, or someone who brings experience and skill to the job. Those of us living in the Buffalo Niagara region would prefer the latter.

Ash recently toured Niagara Reservation State Park and liked what she saw, promising to return often. We hope she does -- even if she hadn't visited the crown jewel of the state parks system before she won the state's top parks job.

Enhancing, not just maintaining, the Niagara park is critical to her management mission. To a significant and, to this region, troubling extent, money earned here is sent elsewhere to support other parks in the state system. But to really succeed -- let alone offer millions of tourists and those of us who live here the parks experience that a natural wonder of the world deserves -- the Niagara park has to be much more than a cash cow.

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has already proven himself to be a man of his word in appointing a qualified, accountable and regionally focused co-leader for the Empire State Development Corp. Ash should prove to be equally worthy of her new role as parks commissioner. But what this area also needs is strong vision and understanding in her department's Niagara Region headquarters.

The regional director in the Niagara Region, which runs from southern Erie County to Rochester, is going to be looked upon as the go-to person on lingering issues and concerns. There have been legitimate complaints that this area's Niagara-linked parks have been neglected and cannot hold a candle to those maintained and continually enhanced by our Ontario neighbors.

A major reason for that is that Ontario park management can plow revenues from its facilities and attractions right back into the parks it runs, while on this side of the river that kind of money is funneled all over New York State instead of concentrated here.

To some extent that's understandable, and residents here can use and benefit from other parks statewide, too. But the huge flow of tourists to the falls also puts the state and provincial parks in competition, and New York loses that competition unless a proper financial balance is maintained and Niagara-generated money is invested in, not just spent on, Niagara parks in ways that can enhance their attractiveness and, in the long run, grow their revenues.

Systemwide park upkeep rightly has been an issue for Parks & Trails New York, an advocacy group trying to gain more funding for the state park system. Earlier this year, the group released a study detailing visits to 36 of New York's 176 state parks last summer. What they saw, outlined in "Parks at a Turning Point: Restoring and Enhancing New York's State Park System," included a variety of problems -- deteriorated restrooms at heavily used parks, essential visitor facilities shut down because of health or other problems, roadways and parking lots broken up, erosion problems and buildings in need of new roofs.

In answer to that situation, state parks officials under the former governor made a good case for private investment and partnerships. As this page indicated at the time, such an approach would help protect taxpayers and keep fees affordable. That still needs follow-through.

Whoever is appointed to the regional directorship here should have the background and capability to ensure that New York's Niagara Falls parks receive adequate funding and care. This is the only way that this area is going to be able to compete for visitors, as opposed to watching them cross the border. It is good that Ash has been introduced to the natural jewels in this area. Now she just has to make sure she and the governor put an appropriate steward in place to watch over them.

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