State officials say partnerships with environmental groups and local governments are helping to ease the crunch. But as Chris Morris reports, critics say partnerships can't erase the need for more dollars.
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Betsy Lowe is director of DEC Region 5, headquartered in Ray Brook. She says the environmental agency is stretched-thin financially, after deep cuts at the hands of former Governor David Paterson and current Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Speaking during a partnership recognition ceremony last month, Lowe said energetic volunteer organizations and savvy municipal leadership have made up for some of those shortfalls. “These partnerships that we have help us meet our objectives in many different ways, especially with the state economy the way it is and us having to do more and more with very limited resources,” she said. “We have to be creative on a daily basis when it comes to accomplishing all that we need to do to take care of what makes our area so special.”
Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff points to volunteer search and rescue groups that contribute critical boots on the ground. “The search and rescue community is so well organized – and the rangers can’t do it alone,” he said. “They’re not being paid and they’re using their own mileage, but they’re out there for us. They are a good, educated group of people who help us find lost and missing persons so we can rescue them.”
Some of the partnerships touted by DEC are still a little awkward. At the ceremony last month, Lowe honored Indian Lake Supervisor Barry Hutchins, who worked with the DEC to reopen roads along the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. The 83,000-acre area is popular among campers, anglers, and hunters, and it nearly closed last year due to the state’s fiscal crisis.
The effort was successful, but Hutchins says there was plenty of controversy as municipalities, green groups, and regulatory agencies were forced to sit at the same table. “As everybody knows, DEC, as a regulatory agency, isn’t always looked at very fondly and the trust isn’t always there,” he said.
Hutchins says hard times are forcing state and local agencies to work together and he says he hopes more trust will follow. “I want to make sure that people know that we aren’t a family yet – we’re still working on it,” he said. “But we are acting like a family, because when times get tough, families naturally draw together. Times are tough, so we need to continue to work in that vein. Not necessarily become a family, because as you look around, there’s a few people that, if you could choose your family, you wouldn’t want them in there.”
But critics say these partnerships aren’t enough. They want the Cuomo administration to use the state Conservation Fund to pay for more DEC programs and stewardship.
Jason Kemper is chairman of the Conservation Fund Advisory Board. He says sportsmen and sportswomen agreed to modest fee increases for licenses several years ago as a means to combat reduced services – but it hasn’t happened. “At the same time, the state economy collapsed and the governor started putting restrictions on spending,” he said. “We were sort of caught under this general state umbrella where we couldn’t fill positions, we couldn’t allow travel, we couldn’t allow overtime – and yet we’re one of the only interest groups that pays our own way. We put all this money in the banks, paid for our services a year ahead of time, but still got caught under this big state umbrella.”
Kemper says the fund – which is financed through hunting, trapping, and fishing license fees – now totals about $20 million. But the state Division of Budget won’t release it for use on stewardship programs. “We have 11 vacant hatchery positions right now, we didn’t take eggs in Raquette Lake last fall – there are a lot of things out there that we could be doing if DOB would allocate that money to DEC,” he said.
In a letter sent April 26, North Country Assembly members Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward asked the Cuomo administration for an explanation of what they described as the “misuse” of conservation funds. So far, the budget office hasn’t replied.