The Commonwealth of Massachusetts once engaged such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot to design some of our best-known state parks and then actually invested resources to build and maintain those visions. Now a fading state government commitment to our parks has left us with a system that is crumbling before our eyes. Adequate maintenance funding and full-time staff positions have slowly withered away.
Sure, we’ve created impressive new spaces like Post Office Park and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, but the financial engine behind those parks — especially ongoing maintenance — is private. That funding no longer comes predominantly from the public sector, which built and maintained parks and recreation areas over the years such as the Emerald Necklace, the Charles River Esplanade, Mount Greylock, Nickerson State Park, and Revere Beach.
The downward trends in funding and staffing of our parks agency — the Department of Conservation and Recreation — are dramatic and disconcerting. Just prior to the 2001 consolidation of the Metropolitan District Commission and the Department of Environmental Management into the DCR, annual operating funding was $110 million (about $140 million in today’s dollars). This year’s budget is $80 million. Over that same period, full-time staff on the state’s payroll has been cut by a third. As a result, some parks are not staffed, some are closed, grass is mowed less frequently than needed, facilities from public restrooms to picnic tables to barbecue pits are crumbling and plain ugly, and trails are gouged by rainfall erosion.
Paradoxically, DCR staff — though well-intentioned — has been its own worst enemy during this period of decay. As resources have dwindled, the DCR’s remaining employees have tried to plug the gaps and meet the demands of administration and legislative bosses, mostly by performing more jobs over longer hours. They have worked hard and successfully to mask the chronic deterioration, often using more readily available capital funding to cover the lack of maintenance and operations resources. Under-maintained parks and facilities deteriorate to the point where significant capital projects are needed to restore them, but those projects don’t include money for maintenance.
There is no guarantee that the staff will continue its Herculean efforts when the effects of the state’s early retirement plan, backed up by the threat of layoffs, becomes known. With a workforce averaging 58 years old and with no prospect of more funding or staffing, we risk losing a significant number of veteran supervisors and resourceful staffers. Who could blame them for hanging up their DCR cleats? They’ve shouldered a disproportionate share of the state’s staff reductions: DCR lost 200 of the 2,600 positions eliminated during the Patrick administration — 7 percent of the total jobs cut — despite the fact that the agency’s budget accounts for only 0.2 percent of the overall state budget. And they have tolerated more than a decade of revolving-door commissioners and an operating budget roller coaster that would challenge even the best private sector managers — from $110 million in 2001 to $72 million in 2004 to $102 million in 2008 to $71 million by 2011.
These wildly-varying budgets show that despite strong and consistent growth in the number of visitors, and strong public support for our parks, funding has become, at best, a residual interest for our elected leaders. The system is effectively the first to be cut, and the last to have funding restored.
The Baker administration and state Legislature need to invest in an effort to set clear standards for our state parks that the public can depend on, beginning with our most popular destinations, but ultimately encompassing the entire system. They should include everything from lawn mowing to trash collection to snow and ice removal to trail maintenance to hazardous tree removal to hours of operation to restroom cleaning — everything involved in managing our park system. After determining what it would cost to provide reliable service at those levels, we should compare those expenses and staffing requirements with what is currently invested in those parks and facilities. The spending gap should then form the basis of a long-term operating funding commitment and resource allocation plan aimed at meeting those new service standards.
We should no longer leave the state’s 450,000 acres of parks, 40 swimming pools and spray decks, 72 ocean and inland beaches, 8 skating rinks, 16½ Boston Harbor islands, 29 campgrounds, more than 60 playgrounds, 55 ball fields, 2,000-plus miles of trails, historic parkways, dams, sea walls, and more at the mercy of a fickle and uncertain budget process. Instead, let’s commit to steady and reliable appropriations that account for natural disasters like tornados and hurricanes, as well as inflation and collective bargaining agreements.
If cuts become necessary, they should be modest and predictable — to encourage the agency to become more efficient — not draconian. If DCR is able to increase revenue it collects from fees, subject to normal review by the Legislature and administration, it should be allowed to invest that additional money in service and maintenance improvements without being subject to offsetting declines in funding.
Our parks add much to our communities. They boost local economies. They enhance human health and fitness. They provide joy and quiet for the young and old. They provide perpetual environmental benefits — cleaning air and water, even in the heart of our cities. But for too long, we have taken them for granted. Unless we act now to end that neglect, we will surely ruin our priceless park legacy.
Whitney Hatch is chairman of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Stewardship Council and a board member of the Trust for Public Land.