Sunday, June 5, 2005
On most days, visitors to Balance Rock State Park in Lanesborough are greeted by a padlocked gate. If they park in the dirt patch across the road and make the 15-minute walk up the bumpy, potholed driveway, they reach a parking lot that has been ravaged by time and weather and is little more than chunks of asphalt scattered over gravel.

Nearby, Balance Rock, a 165-ton piece of limestone, sits on its narrow ridge, believed to have been deposited in its precarious position by a glacier that carried it from west of the Hudson River. The rock is covered with graffiti, and the earth around it is deeply rutted with the tracks of all-terrain vehicles.

The graffiti has been present for decades and is almost as familiar as the iconic rock itself, but the locked gate and the crumbling parking lot are symptoms of neglect, the result of dwindling state funds to pay for upkeep and repairs. As the road deteriorates and the gate stays locked, Balance Rock State Park is becoming less and less accessible to visitors.

Mark Jester, president of the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen and, since October, a member of the 13-member citizens' advisory council that works with the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), said that upkeep isn't the only problem facing the parks and forests: A shortage of staff and park rangers means that there is little to no enforcement of the laws designed to protect these lands.

"We don't have anywhere near the capacity of employees that we need, which directly affects the condition of the parks and state forests," Jester said. "It trickles down to everything: property maintenance, road maintenance and the enforcement ability."

In October Mountain State Forest, the largest state forest in Massachusetts, there is rampant illegal dumping along the roads, Jester said, and the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen has started an adopt-a-forest program to compensate for the lack of public funding.

"You wouldn't believe the number of tons of garbage we took off Woods Pond Road," he said, adding that his group has done similar work throughout the 16,127-acre forest that covers most of the town of Washington and stretches into Lee, Lenox and Becket.

Carol Wolfgram of Otis hikes in the state parks and forests throughout the region with a group of senior citizens once or twice a week, clearing trails and picking up beer cans and potato chip bags. She said she sees signs of the destruction from four-wheel ATVs wherever she goes and suspects their riders are responsible for most of the garbage she finds.

"Hikers are the kind of people who, if they hike in with something, they hike out with it," Wolfgram, 65, said. "I know there are four-wheelers that aren't supposed to be driving on a lot of trails, but there is not the personnel to enforce the no-motorized-vehicles rules, so they go where they want."

Theodore "Tad" Ames, executive director of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, said the staffing decline is "especially noticeable" at Bash Bish Falls State Park in Mount Washington.

"There is no one there. If someone goes in and leaves litter and graffiti, there is no one to clean it up. The neglect is not just a public safety issue, but it can make Bash Bish into an unattractive nuisance," Ames said. "It's just a slow erosion of the properties. Year by year, it's a little less pleasant to visit."

Environmental officials acknow ledge the difficulty of park maintenance in an era of too-few dollars. According to an Eagle analysis of the state budget, Massachusetts is spending 28 percent less ($46.3 million versus $64 million) on upkeep than it spent five years ago. Decreased funding has meant that the state has relied more on "Friends" groups to clean litter from state forests, map out trails and serve as park interpreters. These groups are increasingly partnering on fix-it projects, such as in Lowell, where one group contributed $2,500 to help repair the audio equipment on a display at Lowell Heritage State Park, with matching funds from the state. That work traditionally would have been handled through the DCR's maintenance budget. 

Volunteer groups can't keep up with all that needs to be done, said Emily Norton, president of the newly formed Friends of Willard Brook State Forest, a 2,597-acre tract in Ashby and Townsend.

She sympathizes with park employees, who she said are very dedicated to their work but "who are tremendously short-handed. Most of the seasonal help is just to cover the campgrounds that they operate. Very little can be done to stay on top of things."

The director of the Division of State Parks and Recreation, Priscilla Geigis, said Friends groups are helping to cope with about $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance, though she said the state would like them instead to be able to concentrate on their traditional roles, including offering guided tours, sponsoring hikes and running educational programs.

James R. Gomes, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an advocacy group, praised the volunteers but said much of the work the parks and forests need requires the expertise of a professional. There are access roads that need paving, leaky roofs that need patching, bathrooms that need plumbing and diseased trees that need the care of a trained arborist, he said.

"It's terrific to have local people care for the parks and attending to them, but most of the work has to be done by staff," Gomes said. "I don't believe that we're so impoverished that we should be getting out of that and say we need the private sector to do it."

The Department of Conservation and Recreation did not respond to an inquiry on Friday seeking information on staff reductions at the agency, but Gomes has estimated that the DCR's staffing decreased by 10 percent (1,176 to 1,062) between June 2003 and October 2004 and by 30 percent over the past 10 years.It is not known exactly how many DCR maintenance and capital projects have been stalled as a result of inadequate funding. However, in December, then-DCR Commissioner Katherine Abbott told legislators that the department had a backlog of about $800 million worth of parks and recreation projects. Among those she identified as a priority were $100 million in maintenance for state parks and $212 million for repairs to DCR-managed bridges.

Gov. Mitt Romney asked for and received Abbott's resignation in February after four students in Boston were struck by a pickup while walking in the travel lane of the VFW Parkway. The sidewalks had not been cleared of snow, which was the responsibility of the DCR. Romney accused Abbott of poor management of the agency, but advocates for the parks and forests said Abbott's passion and expertise were needed to improve the condition of the parks.

There may be good news ahead for environmental activists, however. After several years of budget cuts, the House approved an increase in the budget for state and urban parks to $48.6 million, or roughly $2.3 million more than this year. The Senate has recommended $50.2 million, and the conference committee will negotiate the final number for fiscal 2006, likely splitting the difference and giving the department a slight increase.

Geigis acknowledged that more money could mean the ability to rebuild the department's staff.

"It's always been a goal of ours to do that. If we have the funding to be able to, we will certainly move forward with it," she said. "But if our funding stays the same, we won't necessarily be able to add additional people."

The Romney administration in April raised fees across the board for the use of the state's 29 campgrounds, the first time the fees have risen since April 2000. The administration characterized the fees as "modest," saying it would raise an additional $400,000 a year to help pay for maintenance and care.

The cost to use a large picnic pavilion increased from $75 to $100. The cost to an in-state resident to use an inland campsite increased from $10 to $12, while the fee for renting a three-room cabin increased from $35 to $50.

Christopher Hardy, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said it's questionable whether the revenue from the new fees will go toward improving the parks and campgrounds.

Two years ago, the Legislature repealed the Second Century Fund, a dedicated account where park entrance fees and special-use charges were collected and then reinvested in the parks and forests.

With the Second Century Fund gone, Hardy said the profits from increased fees could instead be funneled into state coffers and used as part of the overall budget.