Charles Eliot’s public, private creations treated very differently

Trustees of Reservations is flush and thriving, DCR is not

IN 1891, at the urging of famed landscape architect Charles Eliot, the Massachusetts Legislature created the world’s first land trust, The Trustees of Reservations. Eliot was 32 years old. He also played a major role in founding the Metropolitan Boston Park System, the precursor to our state parks. Unfortunately, Eliot died from spinal meningitis in the spring of 1897, having lived a short life of remarkable achievement we still benefit from today.

During his brief career, he apprenticed with Frederick Law Olmsted, toured European landscapes at his mentor’s urging, founded his own landscape design company, and in March of 1883 partnered with Olmsted’s sons, forming Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, all while acting as the chief planner for the Metropolitan Park System.

Eliot dreamed of protecting as much public open space as possible and connecting those parcels via a scenic parkway system that the public could leisurely navigate for its own health and pleasure. We count among his legacy projects the design of Revere Beach (State Reservation), America’s first public beach.

Today, the privately funded Trustees of Reservations oversees 27,000 acres of land with a budget of $43.7 million and 338 full-time employees, which includes five executive positions that pay more than $200,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Commonwealth’s public parks agency, with a statewide mandate that includes Eliot’s Metropolitan Boston Park System and 500,000 acres of public land, has fiscal 2023 operating budget of $85 million, 950 employees, and no executive position paying more than $200,000.

What’s to glean from the modern-day figures associated with Eliot’s creations? First, The Trustees of Reservations spends about $1,600 per acre, while DCR spends $170 per acre. The Trustees employs one person per 80 acres, while DCR employs one person per 526 acres. Finally, the yearly salary for the top executive position of the Trustees is well above $300,000 and has in the past exceeded $400,000, while the DCR commissioner’s annual salary is less than $200,000.

During the past 20 years, there have been three governors, the same number of leadership changes as at the Trustees.  During that same time, however, DCR has had 11 commissioners, not a recipe for the stability that consistent leadership brings.

According to Fidelity Investments Gift Fund, the Trustees ranked in the top 10 Massachusetts charitable organizations receiving contributions in 2022. Comparatively, in 2021, Massachusetts ranked last in the nation in tax dollar support of our public parks, according to a December 2021 report (page 51).

By any measure, the Trustees successfully fulfills its mission of preserving and protecting land and historic resources, and we all greatly benefit from its work.

Why have Eliot’s two groundbreaking ideas – both very similar – fared so differently? In 2003, Gov. Mitt Romney consolidated the two existing parks agencies, the Metropolitan District Commission and the Department of Environmental Management. At the time, this was hailed as a good-government reform that would eliminate duplication and allow the new agency, DCR, to focus on its core mission.

In reality, the merger accomplished quite the opposite because the political will to finish the job waned, and massive budget and staff cuts due to the 2008 recession added insult to injury. Despite acquiring more land and increased responsibilities between 2003 and the early 2020s, DCR’s operating budget remained flat. As late as 2022, the operating budget supported by tax dollars had not exceeded the 2009 operating budget. During that same time, the Trustees’ budget had increased from $12.8 million to $42 million – a 228 percent increase.

So, what do we do next to help DCR, the public agency responsible for providing public spaces for all in every corner of the Commonwealth, find the resources it needs to succeed?

Since 2021, following DCR’s extraordinary efforts to keep the state’s public lands open during the pandemic, the Legislature and successive gubernatorial administrations have begun making progress. But we need our political leaders to commit to sustaining a long-term vision and strategic plan to rebuild our public parklands, eliminate DCR’s $1 billion deferred maintenance backlog, and replace the 300 employees DCR lost to budget cuts. The FY24 budget worked out between the Legislature and the Healey-Driscoll Administration takes a large step forward.

Mass Parks for All believes state government, primarily our political leaders, must commit to increasing DCR’s operating budget by a minimum $10 million annually for 10 years to compensate for the stagnant budget support over the last two decades. Additionally, $250 million per year in capital project spending for the next decade will enable DCR to eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog and keep pace with new capital demands. DCR, for its part, must willingly enter into public-private partnerships to leverage our public investment with private partners who are all too willing to help with this Herculean task.

DCR is quite capable of doing this when it wants to. The partnership with Walden Woods to build the new Walden Pond State Reservation Visitors’ Center in Concord is a shining example of what DCR can accomplish when it leverages its considerable human and capital resources. Recently revived plans for the Charlesgate project, which will reunite and improve open space along the Charles River with that neighborhood, is a current example of a model public-private partnership.

It will take many more significant public and private investments to create a climate-resilient 21st-century park system accessible to all, with year-round park facilities connected by bike and pedestrian trails, greenways, and blueways.

Meet the Author

Doug Pizzi

Executive director, Massachusetts Conservation Voters
Meet the Author

Michele Hanss

Board co-chair, Mass Parks for All
There are many reasons why our public parklands have suffered two decades of neglect. But ultimately, and more importantly, with the increasing effects of climate change and the possibility of new pandemics, what matters most is what we do next. Let us work together to ensure Charles Eliot’s dream of an adequately funded connected public park system becomes our shared vision and reality in this century. To do anything less for these lands the pandemic proved essential to our physical and mental well-being would be shortchanging Eliot’s legacy as well as we the people who benefit from his creations.

Doug Pizzi is executive director of Mass. Parks for All and Michele Hanss is co-chair of the organization’s board of directors.