If you think Connecticut’s roughly 270,000 acres of forests and parks are protected forever, you’re wrong. That’s according to a new report from Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality claiming state conservation lands aren’t always preserved forever.
WNPR News reported that Eric Hammerling, who heads up the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association, said, “Certainly, there is an expectation from the public that if they live next to, or visit, a state park or forest, that’s something that’s protected on behalf of the people, and will be there forever. But that’s not actually the case.”
Most state land deeds for conservation space don’t require perpetual conservation. Granted, large-scale land transfers are a really tough sell, but Karl Wagener from Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality said he still wants the state’s land-transfer process to be more open and transparent.
Currently, The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) can’t sell conservation lands, but it can gift or exchange open space by engaging in land transfers. Land transfers currently work in two ways. If a town requests taking over state-owned conservation land, it can go to DEEP and request the land be granted as a gift. The town can also offer up some land in exchange, as was the case with 2012’s Haddam land swap.
If DEEP denies the swap, Wagener said there’s another option for towns: going to the legislature. “There’s a bill in the legislature every year,” Wagener said, “called the conveyance bill and lots of parcels of state land are given to towns or other parties.” Usually, these land transfers are mundane. They aren’t large conservation spaces. They’re things like small parcels of land that would allow a town to implement a road expansion or other infrastructure improvements.
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Lawrence Hart and Tom Gilbride were both staying at Connecticut’s Hammonasset Beach State Park and Campground earlier this month. And they were definitely not happy campers.
They were angry over the doubling of park entry and camping fees that went into effect Oct. 1, according to the Hartford Courant.
The increase, adopted by the legislature in an effort to boost revenue, means that Hart, a retiree from Waterbury, Conn., who has been camping with his wife and friends at the oceanside park for 18 years, spending much of the summer there in his RV, will be paying $30 a night to stay there. The camping fee had been $15 a night.
Gilbride, 59, a visitor from New York who has been pitching a tent at the park with his wife and friends each season for 20 years or so, will pay $40 a night because he’s not a Connecticut resident.
“Those ads for ‘staycations’ are a joke because you can’t even afford to stay,” said Gilbride, who has traditionally made the 100-mile trip from his home to camp at Hammonasset each May and October for seven to 10 nights.
State fees are also doubling for season passes, sportsmen’s licenses, parking at many of the state’s parks and forests, and admission to popular attractions such as Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill or Gillette Castle in Lyme.
Hart and Gilbride are lucky, for now. The increases won’t affect them next year because they made reservations before they went into effect. But Hart is bracing for two years from now and expects to cut back drastically on the number of weeks he spends at Hammonasset.
“Five bucks would have been OK,” said Hart, 72, who figures he stays at Hammonasset more than 10 weeks a year. “But to hit us all of a sudden with double — it’s ludicrous.”
Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said the agency told legislators about the possible impact the fee increases could have on visitors. The DEP oversees a system that in 2007 had 6.6 million visitors to 43 parks and campgrounds and about 1.2 million more to 12 state forests.
“We did urge them to think carefully and explore all options,” Schain said. “When things cost more, do people sometimes buy less? Yes that’s true.”
But Schain said the state’s park and forest system still stacks up well compared to other forms of entertainment and recreation.
“Twenty dollars is still more than 10, but it’s less for a family than going to the movies or bowling,” he said. Schain said the department is sensitive to the legislature’s need to increase revenue in difficult economic times.
But Bill Phillips, who was fishing from the beach Thursday for bluefish and stripers, was less sympathetic. The state is now requiring saltwater fishing licenses and charging $10 for them.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s insane,” said Phillips, 64. “They spend too much. The budget’s out of control.”
Phillips said he could understand licensing fees for freshwater fishing because the state stocks ponds, lakes and rivers.
“Me? I get nothing,” said Phillips, who added that many of the anglers he meets at Hammonasset fish only occasionally.
“Ten dollars for three or four times a year? You might as well just go buy the fish,” he said.
Schain said the effect of the increases won’t be measurable until next year because most of the parks have already stopped charging for parking this year as the weather gets cool. But the department will be monitoring attendance and revenue in the spring and summer to see how they compare to this year.
Regardless of the increases, Gilbride plans to continue his semiannual trips to Hammonasset. But he expects to spend a lot less time and money dining out and shopping.
“If I have to give (the state) $400, that’s $200 I’m not going to be spending in town,” he said.