HARTFORD, CT — A few days before the unofficial kick-off of the summer season — Memorial Day weekend — a group of legislators from both political parties made a renewed pitch for the state to spend millions to maintain Connecticut’s parks and forests.
The legislators held a press conference at the state capitol to push for a proposal called “Passport to the Parks,” which they said would raise between $10 million and $14.5 million per year through a $10 vehicle registration fee to be paid every two years when vehicle registrations are renewed.
The $5 per year fee would be, at least as designed, dedicated strictly to maintain the state’s beleaguered park and forest system, which has been particularly hard hit by a series of budget cuts during Connecticut’s budget crisis the past few years.
One of the politicians backing the proposal was Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, who said she was at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme a few days ago and it was “chilling” to see knee-high grass.
She said while she was at Rocky Neck she witnessed two out-of-state RVs pull into the park and campgrounds “and quickly pull out” when they witnessed the conditions of the park.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s most recent budget proposal would cut an additional $8 million from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and most of that, about $6.4 million, would be saved by converting most state parks to “passive management,” providing staffing at only a handful of shoreline parks, and leaving the remainder with little to no ongoing maintenance.
As for “passive management,” Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, had his own term for it.
“I call in active mismanagement,” Hammerling said, adding that currently there are only only 35 full-time staff left to manage 110 state parks after a series of layoffs.
“The governor’s recommendation would close campgrounds and leave even fewer services available to the public,” Hammerling said. “‘Passive management’ means that visitors will enter at their own risk and witness shameful neglect of the our most precious natural resources.”
The “passport” would allow drivers with Connecticut plates to enter state parks for free, while visitors from other states would have to pay entry fees. The legislation that would have implemented the proposal died in committee, but supporters are still hoping the idea could come up as part of the state budget.
One of those speaking favor of the concept was Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield.
While acknowledging the $5 per fee is essentially a tax, Miner added: “This one seems to have the least objectionable component” because it is money that would be funneled back into the state’s parks and forests.
“Far more are in favor than opposed” to the idea, Miner insisted.
“The governor has encouraged all members of the legislature to bring their ideas to the table — and we appreciate members putting forth the Passport to Parks idea,” Chris Collibee, Malloy’s spokesman, said.
“As the administration and legislative leaders work through the budget process we will need to give thoughtful consideration to the upside and pitfalls of this idea,” Collibee added.
However, he pointed out that even if the program was adopted, it would only cover about half the annual operating cost of the state parks and forests.
The discrepancy in how much would be raised depends, according to Hammerling, on the details of the final proposal.
Would certain vehicles be exempt? Would the Department of Motor Vehicles assess a charge for administering the fee? Or would the funds raised would be 100 percent returned to the parks and forests?
Another backer of the proposal, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, was asked how the legislature would prevent the funds from being directed from its intended purpose if the passport program does eventually pass.
“We do sweep funds,” Osten conceded, but she added it would be up to legislators to “work hard to keep these funds dedicated.”
Another backer, Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, agreed with Hammerling’s opinion, stating “passive management is unacceptable.”
Formica said he believed the “small fee” was a good plan and that “it was time to do things differently” to try to keep the state’s parks and forests maintained as areas that can be continually open and enjoyed.
The legislators referred to the passport plan as a stop-gap measure and not a long-term solution to the parks and forests continuing funding program. They said other ideas such as private partnerships need to be further studied.
Last year budget cuts forced three of the state’s 14 campgrounds to be closed after the July 4th weekend. Nine other campgrounds were shut down after Labor Day. Only Hammonasset State Beach Park in Madison and Rocky Neck camping areas were open last year between Labor Day and Columbus Day weekend.
Meanwhile, Connecticut environmentalists have no friend in President Donald Trump, who is proposing to cut the federal Environmental Protection Agency budget by 31 percent. State officials say that would translate into a $6 million cut to Connecticut’s environmental budget.