Letter: Our Vital, Historic State Parks Need Champions

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The following is an open letter to elected and appointed officials and park friends with numerous originators who wrote the letter, followed by organizations that signed onto support the letter. Representatives for the Arborway Coalition, Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Southwest Corridor Park Management Advisory Committee, and more signed the letter.

Massachusetts state parks are in crisis. More than a decade of funding and staffing cuts have eviscerated the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) ability to meet its mission “to protect, promote and enhance our common wealth of natural, cultural and recreational resources for the well-being of all,” while digging a $1.0 billion deferred
maintenance hole. The December 2021 Legislative Special Commission report on DCR (p.51) found that Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, nevertheless ranks last in per capita spending on state and municipal parks.

State park visitors rarely encounter rangers, and too often find shuttered facilities, crumbling infrastructure, and dirty bathrooms. Park rules enforcement to ensure visitor safety and resource protection is virtually non-existent. Also compromised is our parkland’s ability to support our physical and mental well-being, promote environmental
justice, mitigate flooding and urban heat islands, foster climate resilience, and harbor significant natural resources and biodiversity.

The FY2023 state budget process and the recently passed economic
development bill, which will spend nearly $220 million on state and
local parks and other natural resource investments, are significant
steps in the right direction. We urge the incoming Healey-Driscoll
Administration and Legislature to continue investing in our state parks
as a central component of the Commonwealth’s open space
resources. The following are four recommendations critical to
rebuilding a state park system that meets our collective, essential

  1. Appoint a DCR Commissioner with expertise, vision, and
    leadership skills. Appointing six commissioners in the last
    eight years is a recipe for failure. The new administration must
    hire an experienced, committed commissioner with a record of
    successful park operations and land management. The DCR
    Stewardship Council and the public should have input in the
    hiring process.
  2. Ensure DCR implements the Legislative Special Commission’s recommendations (p.10). Elected and appointed officials must fund DCR operations and staffing increases the Commission outlined. Equally important is funding a first-ever DCR strategic plan. The Strategic Readiness Initiative the agency has begun is a start, but cannot replace a full strategic planning exercise.
  3. Continue to increase DCR’s operations budget by at least $10 million annually for at least another decade. With a $10 million increase in its operating budget for FY23, the agency has converted some seasonal positions to FTEs and pledged to begin backfilling at least 50 of the 300 positions lost to a decade of cuts. But DCR staffing remains inadequate to protect and steward natural and cultural assets, advance park planning, and provide project management and engineering support for restoring and improving park infrastructure.
  4. Eliminate the $1.0 billion deferred maintenance backlog plaguing our parks and forests using federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), state budget surplus, state capital budget, and develop new, creative, dedicated park funding. At a minimum, this will take $250 million in capital spending each year for a decade. Adequate, consistent funding will help restore DCR facilities and provide for a robust ongoing capital program as we focus on equity, climate change impacts, sustainability, and other park needs.

Background: In the Spring of 2020, as businesses, institutions, and other places of social
interaction shut down because of the pandemic, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made the correct decision to allow DCR forests, parks, and beaches to remain open and free to visit, knowing people would need outdoor places where they could safely escape COVID restrictions. The tremendous increase in park visits did not wane when pandemic conditions eased. People realized, many for the first time, that they had these publicly funded, historic gems in their midst and continue to flock to them in droves.

Concurrently, the Legislative Special Commission’s detailed report on DCR’s long standing fiscal dilemma and stepped-up park advocacy coincided perfectly with the FY2023 budget cycle, and lawmakers listened. Specifically, the Commonwealth funded a $10.0 million parks and recreation operations budget increase (Line Item 2810-0100) and eliminated retained fee and lease revenue as a day-to-day source of operating funds, replacing anticipated but by no means guaranteed funding with general revenue tax dollars. So, for the first time in more than a decade, DCR planners did not have to guess the amount of operating funds they had available to them for the fiscal year.

These funding and policy changes, though meaningful, are not enough to dig the agency out of its 2008 recession-induced operational and capital hole. It will take at least a decade of adequate, sustained funding, and competent, committed, stable, visionary leadership from elected and appointed state officials to get our state parks to where they should be – a well-funded, reliable partner in support of park users and our state’s $16.0 billion annual outdoor economy.

Conclusion: Action on these four recommendations is critical to DCR’s ability to fulfill its
mission. The 2003 merger of the Department of Environmental Management and the
Metropolitan District Commission to create DCR, and the creation of the DCR Stewardship Council to guide the new agency, has yet to live up to the stated goal to strengthen our historic park system, the living legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot.

State government, park friends groups and conservation advocates across the state working in concert have laid the foundation for success via the FY2023 budget and the economic development bill. DCR parks, beaches, forests, and other facilities benefit our physical and mental health, outdoor economy, habitat protection efforts, climate change resiliency, accessibility, resource stewardship, and environmental justice goals. Moving forward, our parks need champions in the Legislature and the Healey-Driscoll Administration who will commit to building on our progress over the long haul.

Now is the time to create a 21st Century park and open space system.

We welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this further before and after the new legislative session and the new gubernatorial administration begins. We respectfully ask you to publicly commit to advancing these four recommendations. Our park ecosystem and the people who rely on it deserve nothing less.

Thank you very much for your time and attention to this vital matter. We look forward to working with you on this important initiative.

Doug Pizzi
Massachusetts Conservation Voters
Chris Redfern
Friends of the Middlesex Fells
Laura Jasinski
Charles River Conservancy
Sarah Freeman
Arborway Coalition
Becky Kalagher
Bay State Trail Riders Association, Inc.
Jenny Hansell
Berkshire Natural Resources Council
Kathy Abbott
Boston Harbor Now
Karen Mauney-Brodek
Emerald Necklace Conservancy
Margo Newman
Esplanade Association
Judy Lehrer Jacobs
Friends of the Blue Hills
Bill Boles
Friends of Wompatuck State Park
Robb Johnson
Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition
Julia Blatt
Massachusetts Rivers Alliance
Patrick Herron
Mystic River Watershed Association
Bill Boles
New England Mountain Bike Association
Linda Orel
The Trustees of Reservations
Jeff Cook
Trustees Collaborative for Parks & Open Space

Candice Gartley
All Dorchester Sports and Leadership
Heather Clish
Appalachian Mountain Club
Jonah Chiarenza
Bike To The Sea
Elizabeth Vizza
Boston Park Advocates
John D Dougherty
Briggs Tack Shop & Trailers, Inc.
Jessica Grigg
Sandra Fairbank, Robin Powell Mandjes
Cambridge Plant & Garden Club
Jennifer Ryan
Charles River Watershed Association
Randall Albright
Charlesgate Alliance
Jim Perry
Deerfield River Watershed Association

Pamela Jorgensen
Fenway VGarden Society, Inc.
Tim McHale
President Friends of Herter Park
Joseph G. Bella
Friends of Lawrence Heritage State Park
Karen Maddelena
Friends of Mary Ellen Welch Greenway
Suzanne Gall
Marsh Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands
Elizabeth Vizza
Friends of the Public Garden
Colin Novick
Greater Worcester Land Trust
Janie Katz-Christy
Green Streets Initiative
Lesly Melendez
Groundwork Lawrence
Arianna Alexsandra Collins
Hoosic River Watershed Association

Morrie Gasser
Hopkinton Area Land Trust
Alison Dixon
Housatonic Valley Association
Stacy Thompson
LivableStreets Alliance
Catherine Zusy
Magazine Beach Partners, Inc.
Sharl Heller
Massachusetts Forest and Park Friends Network
Patrick Russell
Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists
Thomas W. Lincoln
Medford-Brooks Estate Land Trust, Inc. (M-BELT)

Janie Katz-Christy
Memorial Drive Alliance
Andres Ripley
Neponset River Watershed Association

Caroline Mansfield
New England Equestrian Center of Athol
Jan Devereux
People for Riverbend Park Trust
Chris Mancini
Save the Harbor/Save the Bay
Sharl Heller
Southeastern Massachusetts Pine Barrens Alliance
Jennifer Leonard
Southwest Corridor Park Management Advisory Committee
David Meshoulam
Speak for the Trees, Boston
Magdalena La Battaglia
The Harborkeepers
Brendan Kearney
Ellery Klein