Work progresses on trails at Bear Mountain State Park.
Stories

Five Years and a Transformation

Photo Credit: Steve Aaron

For OSI, whose conservation work over the decades had added over 40,000 acres to the state’s 335,000-acre state park system, the prospect of parks closings prompted disbelief, then resolve.

Just a short time ago, the outlook for New York’s state parks and historic sites was grim. After decades of disregard, facilities and systems were broken down, outdated and tattered. With a budget crisis looming, the state announced plans to close dozens of its beleaguered parks.

Fast forward to today. A full-blown renaissance is underway for the state’s treasured public landscapes. Finally, parks are on the upswing as public and private supporters invest hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrades, forging new partnerships and inspiring New Yorkers to head outdoors in droves.

With the support of OSI’s Alliance for New York State Parks program, New York is continuing the biggest and most sustained financial commitment to its parks since the system was created in 1885. Already an established builder of state parks, OSI has also become a partner, advocate and cajoler as Governor Andrew Cuomo takes on the enormous task of rebuilding the state’s expansive and diverse system of parks and historic sites.

Protecting an investment

The problem had been building for decades.Despite supporters’ calls for additional repairs and updates, the state parks system had somehow become a go-to when lawmakers made cuts in the face of fiscal difficulties. Years of this financial whittling had taken a noticeable toll on parks, whose crumbling masonry, rundown cabins and restrooms, and cordoned-off trails were not lost on the system’s millions of annual visitors.

The situation kept worsening until spring of 2010, when 41 parks and 14 historic sites were slated for closure—with service reductions at many more—to help close a budget gap.

Said Carol Ash, an OSI Trustee who was New York State Parks Commissioner from 2007 to 2010, during the crisis.

Never before, through two World Wars, the Great Depression and numerous recessions, had New York shuttered its parks. And only an eleventh-hour rescue would bring the system fully back on line.

For OSI, whose conservation work over the decades had added over 40,000 acres to the state’s 335,000-acre state park system, the prospect of park closings prompted disbelief, then resolve. Immediately, it began mobilizing to address the system’s failing buildings and amenities.

Amplifying its role as builder of the parks, OSI with the support of Commissioner Ash launched the Alliance for New York State Parks to find a way to reverse the troubling trend.

Kim Elliman and Gov. Cuomo at Minnewaska, 2015
Kim Elliman and Gov. Cuomo at Minnewaska, 2015
Photo Credit: OPRHP

A turning point

In its inaugural watershed report, OSI’s Alliance and advocacy partners Parks & Trails New York (PTNY) revealed that the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation desperately needed an infusion of more than $1 billion to turn around outdated water, sewer and electrical systems and ubiquitous broken facilities.

Then, when a Spring 2011 The New York Times article characterized Niagara Falls State Park as “shabby” and “underfunded,” OSI called attention to the sad description.

Finally, state lawmakers and the Cuomo administration noticed and took action to reverse decades of underinvestment in parks. In 2015, Gov. Cuomo formalized that commitment, announcing a decade-long, $90 million-per-year effort to rehabilitate the neglected system which he branded as NY Parks 2020.

Fundraising for excellence

In addition to public advocacy, OSI’s Alliance also began spearheading successful private fundraising efforts to tackle marquee projects to dramatically improve the visitor experience. As public investments in state parks have increased, supporters are happier to help build excellence knowing the state is doing its share.

At Fahnestock State Park, for instance, located less than an hour from metropolitan New York in the Hudson Highlands, OSI raised more than $1.2 million to renovate the Canopus Lake bathhouse and beach facilities and improve trails and trailheads. OSI has also driven improvement projects at Letchworth, Thacher and other state parks.

All the while, OSI continues its original mission: to expand and protect important landscapes, particularly those adjoining parkland. In 2015, for instance, a 270-acre expansion to Fahnestock was secured by OSI and its partners.

“Through OSI’s vision, and with the initial support of Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky, the Dyson Foundation and the Durst Organization, the Alliance has become an effective force for our state parks,” Ash said.

State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, who succeeded Ash, agrees.

“Rather than talking about broken facilities and closed parks, we are now sending out announcements about parks we are proudly restoring and improving,” Harvey said.

“It has been amazing to watch this renaissance and the groundswell of public support for our parks. It truly is a testament to the efforts of Governor Cuomo, the Open Space Institute, and other public-private partners.”

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