OSWEGO, NY â€“ US Senator Charles Schumer visited historic Fort Ontario today (Aug. 23) to announce that the Senate Energy Bill could provide the necessary funding to reverse cuts to state parks and reduce the risk the fort and other state parks and historic sites would have to be closed in the future.
It could also allow the NYS Parks Department to make critical upgrades and improvements to state parks and â€œwouldnâ€™t cost the taxpayers a nickel,â€ he said.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded through off-shore or on-shore oil and gas drilling (on federal lands) royalties, has been historically authorized at $900 million per year to help acquire, develop and maintain outdoor recreation facilities.
â€œIt returns money that is made from the land to the land,â€ he said. â€œIt makes eminent sense.â€
But, Congress has only appropriated the full allotment twice in the last 40 years, the senator pointed out. The funds, he said, have been diverted elsewhere.
The last year it was fully funded was 1979 when New York State received $24 million, he added.
The new bill, which could be voted on as early as September, contains the full allotment.
That could provide almost unprecedented resources to the state, Schumer said.
The senator was joined by representatives of the Friends of Fort Ontario, who fought to keep the fort open when it was threatened by state budget cuts.
Fort Ontario as well as other state and municipal parks make an enormous contribution to local communities and NY Stateâ€™s tourism economy, Schumer said, adding, â€œThey should not fall victim to the stateâ€™s budget difficulties.â€
â€œThese dollars already being collected by oil and gas drilling companies have hardly been used for their intended purpose and should be spent on parks and outdoor recreation as Congress intended,â€ Schumer declared. â€œIn the last year we have seen park closures and programs New Yorkers have come to expect eliminated because of squeezed state budgets. By providing the state more funding through the Land and Water Conversation Fund our state parks will have greater flexibility to restore cuts to popular parks like Fort Ontario and make long overdue improvements that will ensure our state parks remain national treasures for years to come.â€
Every year 45,000 visitors come through Fort Ontarioâ€™s gates, with another 300,000 using the park and campground, Schumer noted.
All totaled, activity at the fort pumps $13.5 million into the local every year, he said, adding, â€œThatâ€™s not chicken feed. Thatâ€™s important; local businesses depend on that revenue.â€
The senator and his family just finished a vacation that included time at several state parks, he noted.
â€œWe love our state parks. They are a vital part of our economy,â€ Schumer said. â€œAnd, they are a vital part of our life. We have some of the most beautiful parks in the country â€“ Fort Ontario being one of them.â€
Tourism is the top industry in the state, he pointed out.
â€œNext yearâ€™s state budget is probably worse than this one,â€ Schumer said. â€œSo, our parks are once again on the chopping block. Even the threat of closing is bad because it means people may cancel their vacation plans and go elsewhere. We donâ€™t want that.
For more than 40 years, the LWCF has used revenue collected from offshore oil and gas development to purchase lands from willing sellers for the purposes of conservation and to provide grants to states for recreation planning, acquisition of lands and waters and facility development.
It is authorized at a spending level of $900 million per year.
However, Congress has fully funded the program only twice since its inception and rarely has the fund come close to matching the full amount authorized, Schumer said.
Appropriations over the years have varied wildly and have been a mere fraction of the total amount authorized.
The result, according to Schumer, â€œis a program that moves forward in fits and starts, to the detriment of our parks system.â€
All across the state this year, access to state parks was in jeopardy as the state tried to fill its budget gap.
Some parks were closed entirely while others underwent severe cuts that limited access and held up vital improvements.
Specifically, Fort Ontario was slated to close this year due to the budget constraints.
That would have turned away the thousands of visitors who come to Fort Ontario each year.
â€œIt was devastating. Families had to re-plan their vacations and other family gatherings,â€ he said. â€œThe Legislature, to its credit, stepped in and provided funding. So on Memorial Day, the parks opened.â€
The senator recognized the Friends of Fort Ontario for all its members did locally to keep the fort operational.
At its high point, in 1979, the state received roughly $24 million from the LWCF, which was used to provide grants to municipalities to undertake state park development and land acquisition projects.
Since 1965, the LWCF has partially funded 1,250 projects within the state.
Virtually every community in the state has acquired and/or developed outdoor recreational facilities with the help of the LWCF.
Over the past year, due to severe state budget shortfalls, New York State Parks has had to close recreational areas and cut back operations throughout the state.
Funding from the LWCF to New York State Parks for outdoor recreation projects could relieve pressure on its strained budget allowing the state to focus its resources on keeping parks open and operating at their full capacity, the senator said.
Schumer is pushing Congress to use the total amount for what it was intended â€“ and to make sure â€œNew York gets its fair share.â€
â€œIf that happens, in April we wonâ€™t have all the nail biting that we had to experience about our parks earlier this year,â€ he said. â€œIt is in the bill, and we hope that we can get it done. Then people here in Oswego County and all across New York State will be able to breathe a little easier.â€