Ruth Bass: State parks have major role in saving the planet

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RICHMOND — When your kid catches his first fish, it's a once-in-a-lifetime photo op, if the camera is ready. The expression flicks quickly from surprise to amazement. Then a bit of apprehension about getting the flopping fish off the hook. Likewise, when you convince a bunch of tweens that they absolutely must be silent and not squirming - something they can't do unless busy on a cell phone - or the beavers won't come out, it's a special time. Then that nose in the water, pushing a V ripple across the little pond. They inhale. They are thrilled. They are still silent.

Nature matters. Whether it's a private fishing stream or a public park, whether it's a sanctuary or the state forest, whether it's a day trip or a camping weekend, the places where kids and their parents or their teachers or their counselors can get close to birds, animals, plants and silence are extraordinary. And for families looking for outdoor activities that are less expensive than costly ski weekends, the public parks and forests make even more of a difference.

We have so much here, so many ways to make the green world part of people's lives from the beginning, such easily accessible places like Pleasant Valley and Canoe Meadows Sanctuaries, Mount Greylock, Savoy State Forest, Bartholomew's Cobble, Tannery Falls, Pittsfield State Forest and Tyringham Cobble, etc. Enjoying them for picnics or hiking or whatever is the immediate benefit, but the long-term gain is important, too, perhaps crucial to our survival. Going to these places lets people surround themselves with the natural environment. It's a way to learn without knowing you're learning, and the fallout may include a new awareness of how much we need these spaces — forever.

On the health side, various experts have noted that being out there in the woods or running around in a park is good for blood pressure, depression and — the beavers are a case in point — the ability to pay attention.

But forests, rinks, athletic fields, beaches, rail trails, campgrounds, pools and trails have to be cared for. If they're privately maintained, like Berkshire Natural Resources areas, they're well-kept. If they're state-owned, it takes taxes to hire staff for maintenance, for education, for enforcement of the rules. And the very word taxes can spell trouble, even in this state that has long been a leader in preservation of its beautiful spaces.

It's a bit of a shock to read that Governor Charlie Baker, stuck with financial difficulties in the middle of a fiscal year, plans to put the Department of Conservation and Recreation on the chopping block again. It's already down from where it should be, with 400 full time positions cut in the past seven years. Our western region has no ranger at all for supervision and enforcement, as people learned when they thought they might take the traditional First Day Hike. A month before it should have taken place, the governor snitched $5.4 million from the DCR's budget. It's not the first time Boston has targeted the DCR when budget cuts were needed. Snipping away at the DCR has been going on for several years, and this proposal would leave the DCR budget way below the 2008 level.

It's not as if these 450,000 acres are deadbeats, just a few trees and ponds and skating rinks that drain on the state's resources. First, they are among the state's finest resources. Second, the Environmental League of Massachusetts reports that what people spend on outdoor recreation in Massachusetts pumps some $10 billion a year into the economy. And recreation brings more than $700 million a year in tax revenues. With 400 facilities on acreage spread from Pittsfield to Provincetown, DCR cannot afford a contribution to the governor's search for $98 million.

The latest budget slashing also cuts into tourism, a major wheel for the state's economic wagon, and education, including special reading programs, anti-addiction programs and plans for teaching immigrants English in cities where large immigrant populations have gathered. All these reductions hit hard at humans, many of them lower income people, even as politicians mouth their support for helping the poor, aiding immigrant resettlement, teaching all children to read well. As Yul Brynner would say, etc., etc., etc.

If the governor really needs $98 million dollars in cuts, it's time for legislators to hit the budget line by line and find a way that won't wound thousands of people — before the gates to nature clang shut.

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.

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