NEGLECTED PARKS -- LOW FUNDING DEGRADES N.J.
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
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
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
"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
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"
"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
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."