Lots of problems, but also hope, at DCR
Lawmakers need to reverse a decade of underfunding
SUMMERTIME, and the living is not easy. A lingering pandemic, intense heatwaves followed by drenching rains, followed by intense heatwaves and more rain have made this summer a bit problematic. Fortunately, we have our state forests, parks, beaches, pools, splashpads, and bike trails to provide respite. Weather aside, a unique set of circumstances offers a rare opportunity to reverse a decade of underfunding what the pandemic has proven are vital assets.
When the lockdown began in March 2020, visitors flocked to the half-million acres the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) manages for us. As the executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters, a statewide park advocacy group, I wrote a piece entitled Get Thee to a Park, promoting DCR properties as a safe way to exercise and improve our collective state of mind.
And get there you did. During the pandemic’s height, some parks saw triple digit increases in use. DCR rose to the challenge, absorbing the onslaught with real-time messaging on park occupancy and availability. As this summer progresses, it is clear the increased demand, a nationwide trend, is here to stay.
Given the decade of dismantling DCR suffered following the 2008 Great Recession, the agency’s response was nothing short of miraculous. The parks and recreation operations account that pays for day-to-day operations actually had $3 million more in Fiscal Year 2009 than it had in Fiscal Year 2020. During the same period, full-time employees dropped by one-third, to just more than 800. To make matters worse, DCR officials recently confirmed the long-suspected existence of a $1 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects.
But as you head to your favorite swimming hole, ocean beach, pool, or splashpad; take a ride on your favorite bike trail; or relax at your favorite campsite, there are reasons to hope better days are coming. A special legislative commission is now processing oral and written testimony from the public, legislators, state officials, and park advocacy groups about DCR. Authorized in 2019 but delayed by the pandemic, the special commission will make recommendations to the Baker administration and the Legislature in October.
Massachusetts Conservation Voters has weighed in on the investments we need to bring our parks into the 21stCentury, so they can be a true partner for the $16 billion annual outdoor economy our parks help support. We have called for a decade of unprecedented investment; a $10 million per year increase in operating expenses teamed with a $250 million annual capital program each year for 10 years.
We also called for a $20 million annual cap on the ever-increasing retained revenue account, funded by park entry and camping fees, leases, and other income. The pressure on DCR to use regressive fees as tax dollars disappeared has been tremendous, to wit, installing parking meters on Revere Beach Parkway this summer, which had been free to all for 125 years.
More recently, the DCR Stewardship Council unanimously voted to get involved in budgeting before the governor submits a budget to the House of Representatives each January. The council is a product of merging the Department of Environmental Management and the Metropolitan District Commission to form DCR. It is making great strides to bring much needed attention to DCR operations and capital spending.Add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief money Massachusetts has and a looming federal infrastructure bill, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse a decade of defunding our state park system. Let’s work together to leverage this opportunity to help DCR bring us the park system we deserve, as envisioned by its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot. Let our legislators and our governor know you will be watching, and voting. Join us in this effort. The park you save may be your own.
Doug Pizzi is the executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters.