From the Ground Up: Kevin Cahill

Kevin Cahill does not consider himself an “environmentalist.”  But anyone who knows him or examines his record as a public official would likely say otherwise.

To Cahill, who has represented the city of Kingston and much of Ulster County in the state Assembly for the past decade, a commitment to parks, open space protection, farmland preservation and the conservation of natural resources is just the way things are in the New York’s Hudson Valley. “A commitment to the environment is simply part of my marrow,” he says, in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Cahill knows that the Hudson Valley is a special place. Growing up in Kingston, he recalls with great affection his childhood playing games in the woods that ran along his neighborhood and in the barns of family friends. This unspoiled and direct exposure to his surroundings at an early age formed a sensibility and appreciation for the natural environment – particularly that of the mid-Hudson Valley.

“I have been lucky enough to travel throughout the world and I have seen wonderful sites and settings of terrific natural beauty,” says Cahill. “But the fact is, no place can compare in sheer splendor and environmental diversity – and to be located in such close proximity to New York City – it is simply tremendous. The open space, the protected habitats, the farms, the parks – they join together to form a great and inspiring green belt around New York City. And to me, in terms of accessibility and direct recreational and natural offerings, the parks are the buckle of that green belt.”

With his personal convictions concerning the natural environment well established, Cahill looked to transform his concerns for all things “Hudson Valley” into a life of public service. He found his opportunity in the state legislature first working for Maurice Hinchey, the former Assemblyman and newly retired Congressman.   

As an intern and then staffer in Hinchey’s Assembly office in Kingston, Cahill looked to the legislator as his mentor.  Cahill speaks glowingly about his former boss, making the case that Hinchey’s influence in the region, his dedication to its many natural resources and his firm belief that a balanced approach to environmental protection and economic development can not only be achieved, but that it is the ideal. When Hinchey left the Assembly for Congress in 1994, Cahill committed himself to continuing progressive representation in Albany and was elected to succeed his mentor in the state Assembly.

“Maurice Hinchey, without a doubt, set a tone and created a model that defines progressive leadership,” said Cahill. “He not only established a foundation for all of us to build upon, he influenced generations of area leaders and taught us all that protecting our natural resources is imperative for building strong, economically vibrant communities.”

Knowing his tremendous love and appreciation for the Hudson Valley’s beautiful landscapes, vast ecology, rich cultural history and superb recreational opportunities, it’s no surprise that Cahill is leading the charge in the Assembly to rebuild and restore New York’s beleaguered state parks.

Cahill acknowledges that despite a number of high profile state park success stories in the region, including the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park and a series of park land acquisitions state parks have been in a general state of decline since the WPA days. And even more disconcerting for the former chair of the Assembly’s Task Force on People with Disabilities, the parks, as they fall further and further into disrepair and becoming less accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

“Whether it is the threat of park closures that we all lived through just a couple of years ago, or their general broken down condition, state parks have been taking it on the chin for decades,” said Cahill. “And while we can all agree that potential park closures were a terrible possibility, those couple of months not only taught us that parks had a statewide, boisterous and dedicated constituency, it also helped shine a light on a problem that had been swept under the rug for years. Our state parks and historic sites were aging and deteriorating. And the failing conditions are leading to reduced services and declining visitor experiences.”

Throughout New York’s 178 state parks and 35 historic sites, approximately $1 billion is needed to repair, update and restore these important public spaces.

“Last year’s state budget included funding to start addressing this enormous backlog, particularly in terms of health and safety projects. But clearly a more long-term and reliable source of funding is needed to repair, restore and upgrade our state parks,” said Cahill.

For Cahill, that funding may not be growing on trees; but the source is stuck on tree branches, blowing along the sides of highways and parking lots and washing up on riverbeds and along our beaches. The answer is obvious: plastic bags.

Cahill, along with Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Niagara Falls), is sponsoring “Pennies for Parks” legislation that would create long-term, sustainable funding source to restore and maintain state parks through a five-cent fee on single-use, paper and plastic store bags.

It is estimated that the average adult in New York State uses 468 disposable shopping bags each year – for a total of 7.03 billion disposable shopping bags statewide (6.4 billion plastic and 630 million paper). Per penny, $70 million will be generated annually, at a modest cost of less than $5 per adult per year – all of which is completely avoidable to consumers who turn to reusable bags.

To Cahill, the reduced bag usage is as important as the funding generated to support state parks. “I challenge anyone to go for a walk in their neighborhood or spend an afternoon hiking in a park or along the Hudson River and not see a plastic bag lying in the ground. And I don’t think most people intend to litter. I think these bags, by their lightweight and non-biodegradable nature take on a life of their own. The only way to control them is to encourage people to stop using them.”

In other areas of the country that have implemented disposable bag charges, consumer resistance was minimal. In Washington, D.C., a five-cent charge on plastic bags has been in place since January 2010, with little disruption. And in Montgomery County in suburban Maryland a five-cent charge on all disposable shopping bags has been in effect since the beginning of last year.

Cahill has also seen similar programs in effect in other parts of the world. “I’ve traveled through Ireland and in Moscow and seen it work. If people in other countries can change their behavior to benefit the environment, we can too.”

A dedicated fund to support state parks endowed by a charge on shopping bags is a big idea, acknowledges Cahill. “But big ideas and big actions helped to build many of New York’s most beloved state parks in the first place. Whether it was the WPA or the generosity of such families, as the Rockefellers, the Perkins, the Harrimans and the Smileys who helped shape our word-class system. Without a doubt ‘Pennies for Parks’ is a bold initiative. But it’s also the right thing to do.” Particularly for this son of the Hudson Valley.

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