Connecticut camping season kicks off amid state budget cuts, layoff threats

MADISON >> The 2017 camping season Hammonasset State Park kicked off recently under cloudy skies.

But a different kind of gloom has infected the park system, just weeks after dozens of park employees received pink slips because of state budget woes.

The cuts have resulted in a reduction in lifeguard staff, the limiting of campground seasons in the state parks and the closure of four campgrounds for the season.

A staff of some 33 full-time workers will now manage 110 state parks and 15 campgrounds, according to Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association.

More than 8 million visitors are drawn to state parks every year, and this year is expected to be no different despite reduced staffing, said Hammerling. He added that Gov. Dannel Malloy could still “put forth a budget mitigation plan as they go through the process.”

If the budget were adopted as proposed, a $6.5 million cut would be expected for state parks that generate more than $1 billion in revenue per year, said Hammerling.

“It makes little sense to pull more human resources away,” since every dollar invested in state parks generates $38 more in state coffers and the parks support 9,000 private-sector jobs, he said.

Legislators are debating “Passport to the Parks,” which would automatically charge residents a $10 motor vehicle registration fee every other year through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The fee would generate $14 million for the parks, according to Hammerling. Plus, the real payoff is that all Connecticut drivers could access all parks for free.

Typical state park parking fees exceed $10 for a single visit.

A week ago, the parks department lost another 12 park maintainers, leaving staffing levels “dangerously low,” Hammerling said. Park maintainers keep the campgrounds clean and are trained to fight fires.

Russ Miller, a ranger at Hammonasset Beach State Park, and the only full-time employee at the Meigs Point Nature Center, received a layoff notice in May. Miller is the only full-time employee at the state’s $4 million nature center.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that unless the layoffs are rescinded, they will take effect in a few weeks.

Though an army of volunteers has been active at the park for years, “We can do no more; we are already working over capacity,” said Eileen Grant, former president of the Friends of CT State Parks, the umbrella organization for all 26 Friends groups in the state, and an advocate on many levels.

It is not the responsibility of Friends volunteers to take on staff duties for which “they are untrained or not physically able to accomplish,” she said. Plus, the majority of the group’s volunteers are “mature or retired,” Grant said.

“They cannot operate heavy machinery, rescue drowning swimmers or retrieve patrons who injure themselves on cliffs or trails; they cannot direct traffic or intercede when patrons are drunk, disorderly or engage in dangerous behaviors,” Grant said in an email. Forty-five percent of the seasonal budget has already been slashed, she said.

“Seasonals perform 85 percent of park work during the busiest visitation period,” she said.

“Volunteers can only be expected to step-in at the Nature Center on a very limited basis,” said Pam Adams, president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks. “They cannot be expected to run programs on a daily basis, be available to answer calls or schedule group trips.”

More than 60 schools and 60 Scout groups participated in 650 programs offered by the Meigs Point Nature Center last year, according to the Friends of Hammonasset.

Since reopening in May, there has been an increase in foot traffic, with more than 14,000 people using the facility during the first two months, according to a recent report in the Register.

Other parks jobs disappearing are eight administrative and clerical positions, plus two fish hatchery positions, Hammerling said.

The state parks closed for 2017 with campgrounds are: Devil’s Hopyard, Macedonia Brook, Salt Rock and Pachaug State Forest.

“So one way or another, through immediate/short term cuts or longer term attrition, we will have no park system left,” Grant predicted.

The 2017 camping season runs through noon Sept. 4.

“We are optimists and that’s why we work hard to get people outdoors and connect people to the land,” said Hammerling. “Even in face of very bad news, we will keep fighting for what we think is critical.”