Bracing for the state park hit list

The concept of state park closures is a strange one to contemplate. After all, it’s not as if the places and their natural attractions go away. It’s just that the public is barred from using them, and the amenities fall into disrepair. But it’s the “out of sight, out of mind” aspect that’s troubling, especially when the state is considering leasing state forest lands to hydrofrackers.

The Post-Standard joins other papers in the state in speculation about which local parks are being targeted. The presence of Clark Reservation — aka Onondaga County’s “Other State Park” — on this speculative list is not really a surprise. Neither, unfortunately, is Bowman Lake down by Norwich. But just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not mad about it.

I spent a surprisingly great three-day weekend down at Bowman back in August, and to me it represents everything that stands to be lost by closing parks rather than cutting back on hours and services or raising fees. Bowman Lake is a small, unspectacular body of water deep in the woods a few miles north and a couple minutes east of “you-can’t-get-there-from-here.” Nothing of historical significance seems to have happened here. The park’s campsites don’t offer electrical service, so wealthier vacationers in their giant RV’s don’t bother to show. This leaves the rest of us who still use modest pop-up trailers and (gasp!) tents. It’s camping like Mom used to make, even if the park itself is plain vanilla by New York standards.

What made my stay at Bowman Lake terrific was the people who ran it. It’s clear that this park is much loved by the people who maintain it and the campers who come back every year. I’ve hit dozens of state parks over the years for camping and needless to say, the quality of facilities and staffing can vary widely. Bowman, however, appears to have a dedicated squad of (local?) devotees who contribute to keeping the place neat. This is more than you can say for some of the more popular parks I’ve been to where the hired help has been ineffectual or even downright surly. (I won’t name names, but some of these parks are our so-called “jewels” of the system.)

Usually when I go camping I don’t really care much for sitting around in camp – I want to get out and see the natural attractions. Bowman isn’t the most photogenic park in New York, but that’s not its charm. Its charm is simply peace and quiet in the middle of nowhere. When I was there in August, the only exciting thing happening was preparations for a reception at the pavilion overlooking the lake. The family of the bride had just arrived and were joking about their “redneck wedding.” In Albany, they probably don’t see state parks as places where New Yorkers don’t just play, but also play out their lives.

I suspect that nowhere near 100 parks and sites will close, and that that number is just a trial balloon. State parks don’t have powerful unions to protect them. Everyone has their favorite parks, and that’s why the state isn’t telling us upfront what’s in danger. They want to divide and conquer – to pit more affluent New Yorkers and their parks against rural, perhaps less affluent New Yorkers and their parks.

New York’s state park system isn’t just a fancy amenity, or an afterthought as in other states (such as Arizona which has shamefully handled theirs). If the Adirondack Park, which is bound into our state constitution, represents the very idea of how people are supposed to work out living in the present and also keeping the land safe “to the seventh generation,” our state parks – which do not enjoy such constitutional protection – are the most immediate reflection of what danger that idea is really in. The state (and national?) park movement in many ways was invented in the Empire State. Now we are watching that idea coming undone. This is a universal political ground on which New Yorkers can and should fight together.

Further reading:

Soundpolitic: Throwing our state parks off the cliff
Officials worry about state park closings
No details on fate of Tompkins County parks
North Elba could take over John Brown farm