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Comptroller questions if DEC funding is enough

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (Associated Press photo)

In a report released Thursday, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli questioned whether the state Department of Environmental Conservation is receiving enough funding to carry out its duties, which have expanded significantly over the past decade as the state Legislature adopted new laws and the state acquired more land for protection and recreation.

The report will likely come as no surprise to residents of the Adirondacks, where many DEC staff live, including forest rangers and environmental conservation officers. The forest rangers’ union and green groups have been vocal for years about their desire to see more ranger staffing and resources in the Adirondacks as the state adds land to its Forest Preserve.

DiNapoli said the DEC’s annual capital spending rose by $342.9 million between 2010 and 2020, allowing new land purchases and investments in water infrastructure and other long-term assets.

“But spending from State Operating Funds, which pays for most of the agency’s regulatory and environmental management work, fell by $29.4 million, a reduction of 10%,” he said. “Whether this decline has affected DEC’s ability to fulfill its expanding role is open to question.”

He added, “Clearly, New Yorkers have a vital interest in the protection and management of our environment. Intensifying fiscal pressures and an expanding mission require consideration of whether the DEC has the resources necessary to carry out its critically important functions. This report is intended to stimulate and inform such discussion and debate.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Elk Lake Lodge in May 2016 announcing the state’s purchase of the 20,000-acre Boreas Ponds Tract, which was paid for using money from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

The comptroller’s report not only underscores how the DEC’s responsibilities have grown over the past decade but how its role will continue to expand in the coming years as it implements recent legislation to address climate change, including the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Climate Smart Communities Program and the Community Risk and Resiliency Act.

“Among other important new initiatives, DEC is also charged with overseeing $3.9 billion in appropriations in support of clean water infrastructure projects, and managing a variety of programs aimed at mitigating specific types of pollution,” the report reads.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said on Thursday that his department is reviewing the comptroller’s report.

“The governor’s proposed Executive Budget includes sustained funding for New York’s environment, which will allow DEC to continue our vital work protecting the health of our residents and our environment,” Seggos said. “DEC continues to identify new technologies and best management practices to more strategically and efficiently undertake our critical work, and support the state’s ongoing efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Green groups respond

Adirondack environmental advocacy groups responded swiftly to the comptroller’s report, hailing his office for reviewing the issue.

“We are pleased to see Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has confirmed in dollars and cents what seemed to be common sense: that the DEC is doing much more than it did decades ago, but the funding to carry out its mission hasn’t kept pace,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said in a statement.

“In the Adirondack Park, the DEC needs additional planners, engineers, trail builders, land managers, lake/boat-launch stewards, summit stewards, forest rangers and conservation officers, to name just a few,” added Janeway, a former DEC regional director. “Overuse of wilderness, the spread of invasive species, the need for new water systems and new sewage systems will all require greater investments by the DEC in the years ahead. The DEC needs more staff and more money to make that happen.

“The alternative to investing in DEC is to stand by and witness a steady decline in environmental quality across the Adirondacks, as solvable problems like road salt, highway runoff, trail erosion and invasive species continue to overwhelm our waters,” Janeway said. “Overuse would continue to degrade and punish our wildest lands and rarest wildlife. Smog and acid rain would go unchecked and unreported and could continue unabated.

“For a decade, the DEC has valiantly tried to do more with less,” Janeway said. “There comes a day when that really translates into just doing less. When it comes to public health and our environment, we can’t afford to do less.”

A forest ranger union leader said the audit “affirms” the union’s concerns but wished it addressed ranger staffing.

“The overall picture is certainly correct,” Forest Ranger Scott van Laer wrote in a text, speaking in his role as a union delegate of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State. “It’s what we’ve been saying, that there are issues department-wide with staffing.”

He said he thought the audit would have addressed ranger staffing more, or at all.

“There’s no mention of Forest Ranger stuff at all,” he said.

DEC responsibilities

As of 2020, according to the comptroller’s report, the DEC was responsible for regulating, remediating, administering or monitoring 21,933 permits under the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, established to implement the federal Clean Water Act in New York; 11,979 air pollution permits; 5,337 contaminated Superfund sites, Brownfield Cleanup, Environmental Restoration and Voluntary Cleanup programs; 10,965 spills of toxic substances between Dec. 4, 2019, and Dec. 4, 2020; 37,483 active chemical and petroleum bulk storage facilities; over 300 state forests comprising 800,000 acres; 115 wildlife management areas comprising 197,000 acres; 2.9 million acres of Forest Preserve and 52 campgrounds in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks; 53 endangered species, 38 threatened species and 58 species of special concern; more than 100 game fish and game animal species; 12 fish hatcheries, raising 11 species of game fish and several endangered species, as well as the Richard E. Reynolds Game Farm which raises pheasants for release; four summer youth camps and four environmental education centers.

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Staff Writer Aaron Cerbone contributed to this report.

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