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New York marking centennial of state park system

Kayakers at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County.
Jim Levulis
Kayakers at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County.

New York state is marking the centennial of the state park system by highlighting the 180 sites and their environmental, recreational and historical importance. State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid recently crossed the state on a tour of state parks to help get the celebration started. We connected with the commissioner to discuss the tour and the state of New York’s parks.

Kulleseid: I took a tour of 10 sites in two days. Started my trip in Albany and headed south. Went to Olana to take in that as a state historic site and then went to Walkway [Over The Hudson] where I rode a bike across the walkway, the longest pedestrian, non-motorized, elevated bridge in the world. Then to Lake Welch. It was all part of a two-day tour really to launch our centennial celebration. 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the State Parks Act. And so I'm doing this tour to draw attention to kind of the variety and scope and breadth and quality of the New York State Park experience. So I got to Lake Welch, which is a lake beach down in the lower Hudson Valley where I first worked as a lifeguard in 1982. That's when I started my parks career. I was plenty of other places in between then and now but I like to think that that's where I started my love for state parks or at least my professional love for state parks. There was off to Jones Beach where I rode a zipline and was showing one of the new amenities we have out there as well as toured a sand sculpture we have with our centennial logo. And then flew up to Niagara Falls and lit the falls in green and gold in honor of the centennial. Next day, I shot a cannon off at Old Fort Niagara, which is one of our great historic sites up there. Then Ganondagan, which is a Native American site we have that commemorates Native American history and culture of the Haudenosaunee and the Seneca in particular. And then Green Lakes to go kayaking on a glass bottom or a transparent bottom kayak and finally ended up back in Albany on day two, after many, many miles welcoming the Philadelphia Orchestra to SPAC which of course is also in a state park. You know, that's what I was trying to draw attention to and it was a magnificent two days with lots of people welcoming me and lots of opportunities or show off our parks. It was just a fantastic two days.

So you mentioned you were there to highlight the variety of the state park system and obviously the centennial. Going ahead, looking ahead to 2024 and of course the rest of this year, what else is planned for the centennial?

You're gonna see me out and about, like I said, you know, the centennial commemorates the 1924 state parks act. Plenty of our parks predate the centennial. You know, Niagara Falls is the oldest state park in the country, it goes back to the 1880s. But 1924 was a seminal moment in our history when we went from really focused on protecting scenic places, to really focusing on that recreation aspect. In the 10 years following 1924 is when we built out Jones Beach, a lot of those iconic big destinations where you can take a lot of people in were constructed. And so we really took on that recreation aspect. And so now's a perfect time to be noting that especially after we've been through our own sort of renaissance in the last 15 years. Governor [Kathy] Hochul has prioritized making sure our parks are back on that 100% premium top-notch setting. So in the coming year, I'll be continuing to make trips out. Our tagline is “we'll see you out there.” So we look forward. I will see you out there. We'll see you out there. We're launching something called Share Your Story on our website. We have a website at parks.ny.gov/100. People can already view a teaser video highlighting the parks. And then we will soon be launching Share Your Story on our website, which allows people to upload photos from family reunions, wedding proposals, marriages, memorials, barbecues, all kinds of things. I think this is the joy that happens in state parks and sites. And we've been around for so long. I think there's a lot of lore that we want to collect to be able to share with the public and again, build activities around our centennial. We will be selling merchandise, you know Centennial-themed merchandise. We will also be looking at celebrations and performances put on by some by our friends groups and by us. And of course, we'll be celebrating during the centennial year, the solar eclipse in April next year, which will be coming through just in time for the centennial, sort of appropriate, right, it's coming right through a lot of our parks along the Niagara River, Lake Erie, and the North Country. And what a perfect way for the sun to sort of play along with us.

Obviously, the centennial, 100 years, you mentioned some of the parks are older than that. So how are the state’s 180 state parks doing when it comes to things like infrastructure, facilities, maintenance, that sort of thing?

I take my hat off to Governor Hochul. We are in a really a 15-year renaissance of parks. You may recall, back in 2010, those dark years after the financial crisis. There was a proposal on the table to close 55 parks. And the people of New York went nuts. I mean, legislators heard about nothing more than that, right? That was the number one issue that people were phoning in to cry out against. And so the legislature put in enough money to keep the parks open. And since then, we've been on a building pitch. And we've been able to invest and begin to address what had been decades of underinvestment at that point. And we've also seen our visitation rise. Our visitation has gone from somewhere in the 50s at the time, because we just weren't investing and now we're at 78-79 million people a year. So we are in the middle of a great rise. Governor Hochul is committed to continuing it. We still have closed parks that are unable to reopen after storm events. We obviously have a highly developed, highly historic park system that needs capital. So we can continue to do that. But Governor Hochul has really made, you know, continuing to rebuild our park system, one of her top priorities. So we're optimistic about the future and our continued ability to deliver not just restoration, but also positioning the parks for the future, right? We need to be thinking about sustainability. And we're on track now to become 100% functioning on renewable energy, renewable electricity by 2030. And we've got to be thinking about climate change, right? And believe me, in July, Bear Mountain has been closed for four or five weeks now because of that incredible storm event during the week of July 4. So we have a lot of needs, we have a lot of preparation to do, we have a lot of adaptations need to do to really continue to position ourselves for us for a second century.

Yeah, if I have my numbers correct, the latest state budget includes $200 million for capital improvement projects annually for five years for state parks.

That is correct. And $200 million, that's a record for projection. Obviously we had one year of $250 million a couple of years ago, but no $200 million is setting us at the highest level we've ever been. And it reflects both the need and also the confidence that what we're providing people is a quality experience. You know, I care so much as Commissioner about the visitor experience that you know, you should drive into our parks and have a feeling of awe and not a feeling of somethings that sort of falling apart. We still work to do. But I tell you, you go out to Niagara Falls these days, it has been transformed. Jones Beach has been transformed. In the Capital District, you think of Thacher, think of the new visitor center at Thacher that has happened in the past 10 years. I think our parks are looking better than ever. And I think we have work to do in that funding. Plus, the ability to add some staff in this past budget are going to help us address all these issues and continue to leave New York as really the premier park system in the country.

Commissioner, you mentioned the maintenance backlog that partially led to this latest push. On the federal level, a maintenance backlog led to the Great American Outdoors Act that was passed and signed into law in 2020. That fully and permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year. That Fund includes matching grants to state and local governments to acquire and develop public outdoor recreation areas and facilities. Has New York been able to tap into that?

Absolutely. You know, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been around since the 60s. And you're right it was permanently reauthorized a couple years ago and that is the steady source of money. That generates $10 to $15 million a year that we are able to invest in state parks as well. Over the years, that money has also gone to local governments, but it's definitely a helpful addition. And at one time, you know, that was really, when New York was not investing, that federal money was critical to getting anything done. But now it's one component, but the state has really stepped up.

And we'll talk about the latest bit of funding that I have here. Turning to the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act that was approved by New York state voters last year, is there money expected for state parks in that?

We do expect that there'll be money for state parks out of the $4.2 billion bond. We're very heartened that the voters approved that by a large margin, it was not even close. And sometimes those bond acts are close. So we expect, one of the signature projects, I think that has been talked about in connection with the bond act is the buildout of Sojourner Truth State Park. It’s our newest State Park in Kingston. It's our first park in the city of Kingston. It's an old quarry that is now open to the public, the Empire State Trail runs through it. But we've got plans to really open it up and make it much more accessible from Route 32 in Kingston. And that'll require something that we do expect to be able to get from the bond act. But we also expect, I think, in the bond that there's funding to help make sure dams are in good shape and around resiliency and stormwater controls. And we also expect to have some money to help us again in the sustainability vein, to make sure our parks are more resilient to climate change and sea level rise, to restoring channels along the Hudson River and some of our Hudson River parks, we've got a whole host of things that yes, we're very much eligible for bond act funding. And I like to think that, you know, in our parks, you know, we get 79 million visitors a year, we have the opportunity to model sort of the best behaviors. That's why I'm proud to be head of this agency as we take on, you know, climate change and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and make sure that our parks are in the best position possible to adapt and respond to climate change.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org