- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - The effects of state budget cuts will soon be felt at Connecticut’s 109 state parks, including cutbacks in lifeguard staffing and park maintenance and the closure of three state campgrounds.

The $1.8 million in reductions to park operations will take effect after the July Fourth holiday weekend, and Robert Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said he expects additional cost-cutting steps next spring. DEEP faces an overall $10 million reduction in funding from the state’s general fund.

“By carefully analyzing how and when the public uses our state park system, we will achieve the savings we need while keeping much of what we offer at our 109 parks open and available to the public,’ Klee said.

But park advocates argue these reductions point to the necessity of identifying additional revenue streams to help fund the parks.

“This just underscores the need for these sustainability funds,” said state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., the Democratic co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee. Kennedy and other lawmakers have proposed concepts over the years such as expanded park concessions, a tax on disposable plastic bags, higher park rental fees and sponsorships.

Such ideas, however, haven’t been implemented.

The state spends about $18 million on its parks. Approximately a third of that cost is made up from revenue generated at the parks, including entrance fees. Other programs within DEEP have additional revenue streams, including federal funds, they can rely upon. Kennedy points to a recent national study that shows Connecticut is one of a handful of states that covers park operations with only general fund revenues.

“This is why it’s so important to raise revenues creatively for the parks,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. “It’s extremely unfortunate to see this happening.”

The adjustments in days and hours of operations at the parks will be rolled out soon after July 4. DEEP plans to contact people with reservations at campgrounds at Devils Hopyard in East Haddam, Salt Rock in Baltic and Green Falls in Voluntown and offer them an opportunity to switch their reservations to another state campground or receive a full refund.

DEEP’s plan also calls for closing other state park and forest campgrounds after Labor Day instead of late September, with the exception of campgrounds at Hammonasset Beach and Rocky Neck State Parks. Those two shoreline campgrounds will remain open through Columbus Day weekend.

Agency spokesman Dennis Schain said DEEP doesn’t foresee any full-time park staff being laid off. However, he said most of the approximately 500 seasonal workers, who help run the parks during the busy summer season, will see reduced hours.

“We’re just looking to tighten the reins and find ways to reduce expenses,” he said.

Lifeguards will be among the seasonal workers whose hours will be reduced, he said. The state currently hires lifeguards to patrol eight of the 23 state park beaches. Shoreline beaches will now be guarded five days a week instead of seven, while inland beaches will be guarded three to five days a week instead of seven.

Also, days and operating hours for some of the state park museums and nature centers will also be adjusted to focus on when the locations are typically the busiest.

Hammerling said he worries about the future of Connecticut’s parks if the funding problem isn’t solved.

“I think about the beauty of the parks, the fact that we have these amazing places,” he said. “If they’re protected, but not well-maintained, that’s just a shame, and we need to do something about that right away.”

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