Nature center at Hammonasset in Madison may lose lone full-time employee to state layoff
MADISON >> Less than a year after the state’s $4 million nature center opened at Hammonasset Beach State Park, the center’s only full-time employee was given a layoff notice.
Russ Miller, a ranger at Hammonasset, and the only full-time employee at the Meigs Point Nature Center, received his layoff notice of Friday, he said.
“I would like to know that there will be a full-time person that knows the intricacies of the building when I’m not there,” he said Wednesday. Miller added that he works now with a great group of volunteers and seasonal staff, but he is the only full-time employee that knows the ins and outs of the nature center and taking care of animals that live there.
“I think the animals have always been my No. 1 priority,” Miller said. “I think everybody is in agreement that we need to keep everything alive and the center running.”
Dennis Schain, communications director for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the layoffs were a result of further budget cuts to the department. He said Miller was on the list because he had the least amount of seniority of all of the employees who are maintainers in the department. Schain said that unless the layoffs are rescinded, they will take effect in a few weeks.
“It’s not something we chose to do or wanted to do,” Schain said of the layoffs. “We want to do everything possible to maximize public access to the nature center.
“The top priority is that the animals are protected,” Schain said of the exhibit’s many snakes, frogs, fish, and other wildlife. He said DEEP hopes to work with volunteers moving forward to ensure the center can remain open.
Schain added that the budgets are not finalized for next year yet, and he hopes the department will get a parks budget it can work with.
Recent cuts to the state parks budget have resulted in a reduction in life guard staff and a limiting of campground seasons in the state parks.
Last week, 22 employees received layoff notices from DEEP, and the parks were hit by those layoffs, Schain said.
According to Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, if the 22 layoffs happen, there will be 35 full-time staff left to manage 110 state parks.
“The state priorities need to be in a better place,” Hammerling said, adding that “professionals like Russ and jewels like the nature center,” need to be preserved.
“We have the greatest and highest regard for Ranger Russ,” Hammerling added. “It would be a real shame, a tragedy, if that great new Meigs Point Nature Center wouldn’t be able to be used by the public.”
The Meigs Point Nature Center has gone through a number of upgrades since it started as one room in a private home 65 years ago. The center, now 4,000 square feet, has multiple exhibit areas, and an observation deck and uses geothermal technology for heating and cooling.
The new nature center was built as part of an $11.5 million makeover of the park that began in May 2015.
The exhibits in the center, complete with native reptiles, amphibians, fish and other wildlife, were sponsored by the Friends of Hammonasset, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting environmental education at the park, and cost close to $500,000.
Don Rankin, a volunteer with Friends of Hammonasset, said the center is a great example of a partnership between the state and local groups that resulted in something that benefits the public.
It’s hard to know exactly how many animals live in the nature center, Rankin said, as there are dozens of fish, turtles, and reptiles on display there. But, Miller, Rankin said, is the one who really takes care of all of them and keeps the center running smoothly. Miller will be greatly missed, Rankin added.
“We have a lot of concerns… with these layoffs, we’re very concerned about reduction of services,” he said.
“It’s such a popular facility,” Rankin said, adding that the center gets tens of thousands of visitors a year. “It’s such an attraction.”
The attractiveness of the park may help keep it open if further cuts are made to the state parks budget, said David Sutherland, the director of government relations for the The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. He said he is concerned that if things continue to go the way they have recently and more funds are lost to the parks, they will have to be closed.
“It just seems shocking that we might be the generation that shuts down our state parks,” he said.