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OpEd: Remember the Hudson, governor

January 26, 2010 | The Times Union

The Times Union

OPINION

January 26, 2010

 

Remember the Hudson, governor

By ANDY BICKING

Gov. David Paterson committed himself in his State of the State speech last year to clean up the Hudson River so it looks like it did when Henry Hudson sailed on it 400 years ago.

Quadricentennial festivities drew record crowds to the river's waterfronts, including more than 120,000 people during River Day festivities in June. Walkway Over the Hudson, one of the most spectacular Quadricentennial legacy projects, has attracted more than 415,000 visitors since its October opening, shattering projected attendance figures for this dramatic park atop the former Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge and boosting business throughout the mid-Hudson region.

These successes -- championed by the governor and Hudson Valley legislative leaders -- illustrate the river's power to engage and inspire. They also highlight its untapped potential as the linchpin of the valley's tourism industry, already a $4.7 billion economic engine responsible for 80,000 jobs. Quadricentennial organizers recognized this potential. One of the celebration's themes was promoting environmental and economic sustainability.

In this year's State of the State speech, the governor made no mention of the environment or his Hudson River goals. He proclaimed that this is a "winter of reckoning," given the difficult decisions that not only will impact the state this year but perhaps for generations. His proposed budget attempts to stem the tide of red ink pouring out of Albany.

However, it continues a multiyear trend of disproportionate cuts to the environment, including a $79 million reduction of the Environmental Protection Fund and elimination of money for land protection.

This follows years of raids on the fund, now totaling more than $500 million, that would have supported protection of working farms, investments in water and waste water facilities critical for job growth and clean water, and waterfront revitalization. Throughout the budget crisis, the governor has called on the Legislature to work with him and provide alternative budget-balancing strategies. Now it is critical for legislators to restore these cuts to promote jobs and the environment.

The New York Times recently reported that the country's sluggish real estate market is creating unique opportunities to save land at bargain prices in states that have funds available. Some of New York's most popular, revenue-generating parks -- like Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks -- were created during similarly challenging economic times. Such opportunities will be lost if the governor's zero proposal for land preservation is allowed to stand. Rather than viewing land preservation as a luxury for favorable economic times, the Legislature would do well to note that parks increase surrounding property values and local revenues while keeping the costs of municipal services low. They spur economic development and attract and boost nearby businesses. A recent study showed that each $1 investment in New York's state parks nets a $5 return in spending.

Proximity to parkland also increases the likelihood that people will get out and exercise -- a goal of the governor's Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative -- helping us ward off medical conditions responsible for out of control health care costs.

Protected forests and wetlands purify our air and water, reducing the need for costly manmade safeguards, while conserved farmland supplies fresh produce. By enhancing our quality of life, these places attract new businesses, jobs and residents, an imperative with more than half of New York's counties suffering declining population rates.

Quadricentennial festivities are over, but Hudson Valley communities are looking to the future, rallying behind meaningful long-term legacy projects. In one of these -- Saving the Land That Matters Most -- a coalition of conservation organizations is protecting strategically identified lands that meet the state's highest standards in agricultural, ecological and scenic values.

The Paterson administration's environmental and parks agencies have been missing in action on this critical initiative. Productive farms and habitat-rich wetlands will be lost forever if they continue to sit on the sidelines. The governor's inspiring goal of protecting the scenery as it was during Henry Hudson's time will be just a throwaway line in a forgotten speech.

I urge the governor and Legislature to build on the successes and economic wave generated by the Quadricentennial and restore the integrity of the Environmental Protection Fund so the Hudson Valley and entire state can maintain -- or even ramp up -- the accomplishments of 2009.

The Legislature has a great opportunity to demonstrate leadership by realizing that short-term savings could have damaging long-term economic consequences for the Hudson Valley and the entire state. As the gateway from Manhattan to Upstate, New York's future prosperity flows right through here.

Andy Bicking is director of public policy for the environmental organization Scenic Hudson, based in Poughkeepsie.

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