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The Record (Bergen County, NJ) - March 22, 1998 issue

By BRUNO TEDESCHI, Trenton Bureau


As one of the state's best-known landmarks, the monument at High Point State Park attracts visitors from near and far -- many of whom climb to the top of the 220-foot tower to admire the spectacular views. Even on a cold day last week, day-trippers abounded. Gerd Frowein drove from his home in Haledon to show it to his German visitors. Harry Morse and his wife, Madelyn, took a detour on their way home to Nova Scotia.

But visitors to the 68-year-old monument this spring will be disappointed. During the winter, park officials discovered that a long-standing moisture problem had taken its toll on the staircase. It will be closed indefinitely.

"It's a terrible thing to let something like that go to pieces," Morse said. "It should be revered and held in honor." The monument is the highest-profile -- but certainly not the only -- example of neglect in New Jersey's state parks, a key component of New Jersey's $24-billion-a-year tourism industry.

From High Point in Sussex County to Cape May Point, state parks are in sorry shape. Years of budget cuts have forced the Department of Environmental Protection to trim staff and defer more than $100 million in capital projects, according to the 1998 annual report of the Division of Parks and Forestry.

Since 1990, the division has lost nearly 9 percent of its full-time staff, even as the state added almost 33,000 acres of parkland and attendance at state parks rose by a third, the report said.

During that time, the park service's budget -- cut in some years, increased in others -- rose by a modest 3 percent, while overall state spending went up by 40 percent. The slight increase in the parks budget covered rising personnel costs, while spending on maintenance and operations dropped 14 percent, the report said.

Some parks, such as High Point, no longer employ staff for educational programs and guided hikes. Many don't have enough rangers to keep pace with the increasing attendance. Aging facilities are deteriorating, and in the case of the High Point Monument, closed to the public.

"We really are hurting," said John Keator, superintendent at High Point. "We're overused and overliked by the public, but I don't think they understand what it takes to provide a safe and enjoyable place for them to come and visit."

Trees and trails and a whole lot more

Indeed, the state park system is more than just trees and trails. It includes historic mansions, monuments, botanical gardens, canals, lighthouses, public toilets, and cabins -- all of which need constant attention. But compared to other states, New Jersey's park system fares poorly.

According to a 1996 survey by the National Association of State Park Directors, New Jersey had 1.4 employees per 1,000 acres, compared with a national average of 5.5, and it had an operating budget of $89.10 per acre, compared with a national average of $362.48.

"The bottom line is that our public lands have deteriorated to the point of crisis, and citizens are beginning to feel very cheated because the lands they voted to protect are getting very shabby treatment," said JoAnn Dolan, executive director of the New York/New Jersey Trails Conference. Jim Hall, an assistant DEP commissioner who oversees the parks division, said the state had to make choices during tough economic times. "In the scheme of things, if you look at the DEP, our division has fared well," he said. But the situation only promises to get worse if Governor Whitman's goal of protecting an additional 1 million acres over the next decade is achieved without providing the necessary resources to maintain those lands. Whitman set the goal during her inauguration address in January.

The Governor's Council on New Jersey Outdoors recognized the problem in a report issued last month in which it called for $200 million annually for open space preservation, including an additional $15 million annually for capital improvements and $14 million for operating expenses.

"How can we spend money to protect more open space when we don't take proper care of the lands for which we are already responsible?" the report asked. "The answer is that we have to do both, balancing our fiscal resources for both our preservation and stewardship needs."

Expanding acreage needs more staff

The consequences of underfunding a growing park system are readily apparent at the 1,352-acre Kittatinny Valley State Park in Sussex and Warren counties. The park includes the 27-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail and the 20-mile Sussex Branch Trail, both abandoned rail lines.

When the state established the park in 1994, it did not create any new positions in the Division of Parks and Forestry.

"We've basically been robbing from Peter to pay Paul," Kittatinny Superintendent Rocky Gott said. "We did some creative scrounging to get what we needed to set up an office. Vehicles were borrowed or reassigned from different areas."

Gott said he has only two maintenance workers for the entire park. Kittatinny was assigned four seasonal maintenance workers last summer, but he said he would need eight to 12 full-time workers to get the job done right.

Without the staff, trails cannot be properly maintained. On the Paulinskill Valley Trail, which is poorly marked and hard to find, the maintenance crew has not had time to rebuild two bridges that cross streams.

"I'm all for conserving open space, but there has to be a responsibility to staff, maintain, and protect it," Gott said. "That just isn't happening. We're downsized and hurting. People want to do the job of providing the best recreational opportunities and protection, but we're just stretched so thin."

Wawayanda State Park in Vernon, which includes Abram S. Hewitt State Forest, has added about 1,000 acres in the last four years, but it has not added a maintenance worker or park ranger in at least seven years, said park Superintendent Bob Goodman.

The park has a maintenance crew of three, supplemented by seasonal help and prisoners, said Goodman, who added that he could use more help to maintain the 19,000 acres and 60 miles of heavily used trails.

"There are things that full-time staffers can do that you can't have corrections crews or seasonal crews do simply because they don't have the training or experience," Goodman said.

Ed Pomeroy, the chief ranger at Wawayanda, said he has a force of two rangers and that at times there are no rangers on patrol.

"We try to run two shifts from Memorial Day to Labor Day as much as possible, but it's very difficult," said Pomeroy, who also patrols the park.

Fewer rangers to help visitors

Maryanne Ofenloch, a state park ranger, said the shortage of rangers is a problem throughout the state. Ofenloch said a 1986 reorganization study of the Division of Parks and Forestry recommended that the state employ 100 rangers and 28 chief rangers. The state now has 65 rangers and 21 chief rangers, Ofenloch said.

"It means there are fewer rangers out there to help the public," said Ofenloch, who is the park rangers' representative to the Police Benevolent Association. "We can't enforce the laws and protect park visitors from the criminal element. We're not there to give first aid. We're not there for general information. We'd like to be more preventative, but instead we have to be reactionary."

Staffing is also a problem at Ringwood State Park, home to several historic sites, including the Long Pond Iron Works, Ringwood Manor, and the New Jersey State Botanical Gardens at Skylands.

Park rangers and maintenance crews assigned to Ringwood are also responsible for other state-owned lands, including Farny State Park in Rockaway and Troy Meadows in Parsippany-Troy Hills and East Hanover.

Ringwood Chief Ranger Lou Casper said that during his four years atthe park, he lost three rangers, even though he is responsible for patrolling an additional 4,000 acres.

Shepherd Lake Recreation Area, also a part of Ringwood, closed to swimmers in August 1996 and has not reopened because of lifeguard shortages. Casper said the park could not pay a competitive wage.

If it weren't for the Friends of Long Pond Iron Works, visitors would never have the opportunity to tour the national historic landmark that dates to the Colonial era. The volunteer group maintains the buildings and grounds and offers tours once a month. At other times, visitors are greeted by "no trespassing" signs.

"Unfortunately, the staff at Ringwood Park has been seriously depleted in the last decade," said Martin Deeks, president of the Friends of Long Pond Iron Works. "So if we didn't do it, it wouldn't get done." Deeks said the group would like to turn Long Pond, now a collection of boarded-up buildings, into a museum much like Waterloo Village. The state has spent $1.6 million on the historic site, but it falls far short of what is needed to turn it into a viable attraction, Deeks said.

A $100 million backlog of work

Through two voter-approved Green Acres bond issues in 1992 and 1995, the state provided a total of $70 million for major improvements on state-owned lands such as Long Pond. But the state's heavy reliance on Green Acres bond issues, instead of annual appropriations, has created a $100 million backlog of capital projects because the Division of Parks and Forestry cannot do long-range planning, the division said in its 1998 annual report.

For the first time this decade, the current budget included $2.4 million for parks and forestry and $1.67 million for the Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife for capital improvements.

Ringwood Manor, a sprawling 51-room Victorian mansion that is the centerpiece of Ringwood State Park, is one example of a historic site suffering from years of deferred maintenance.

Trim around the windows and doors is peeling, parts of the roof leak, the plaster columns on the porch have deteriorated, and the gutters need to be replaced. Two barns next to the mansion need repairs.

Elbertus Prol, curator of Ringwood Manor, said the mansion also needs a new heating and cooling system to protect valuable art and antiques.

Susan Hawley, president of the Friends of Ringwood Manor, said she is concerned that if the state does not make the necessary repairs on manor, it will end up like the Col. Anthony R. Kuser mansion in High Point, which was bulldozed in 1995 after years of neglect. Hawley said: "It's an unfortunate situation where the state owns something but is unable to care for it."