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Cuts take an environmental toll

Mass. budget ax hits push for clean air, water

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / January 11, 2010

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Severe state environmental budget cuts will hit home for the public this summer with expected staff cuts at parks and campgrounds, but they will probably also take a toll in less visible areas such as water and air protection, recycling efforts, and the policing of environmental crimes.

Since the beginning of fiscal year 2009, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s budget has been slashed by more than 23 percent, from $102 million to $78.3 million today, and the agency has lost 171 full-time positions through retirements, attrition, and layoffs. The state Department of Environmental Protection’s budget has been cut about 16 percent, from $62.3 million to $50.7 million, in that time and is losing about 140 full-time positions. The latest round of layoffs occurred this month.

Among the program hits: Virtually all community recycling grants have disappeared; technical assistance to help communities deal with hazardous waste sites is reduced; the Agricultural Innovation Center, which partnered with industry to develop new businesses, is gone and there are about 15 percent fewer environmental police officers to ensure boaters, snowmobilers, hunters, and fishermen abide by state laws. The cuts are also expected to slow permitting timelines for development projects and efforts to clean up toxic mercury and emerging pollutants.

Ian Bowles, state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, did not sugarcoat the impact - but said the state is working hard to restructure some programs to ensure the least harm to the state’s most critical environmental services.

“As in every state right now, there is no doubt the Commonwealth’s fiscal challenges have made it more difficult to keep our parks and beaches in top shape and perform environmental regulation at the speed of business,’’ said Bowles. But, he said, employees in the agencies affected “are working hard to tackle new challenges with fewer resources, and with fewer colleagues.’’

Environmentalists say that Massachusetts already ranked close to the bottom in the country in environmental funding, and the cuts come at a time when the state is facing profound challenges, such as man-made climate change, chronic air pollution, and degradation of waterways and supplies.

“It’s a tragedy,’’ said Peter Shelley, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based advocacy group. He lauded the Patrick administration for its ambitious efforts to revamp ocean zoning and spark a massive renewable energy effort in the state. But “without smart people writing permits, they are going to remain plans,’’ he said.

Bowles said some agencies, such as the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Public Utilities, and Division of Energy Resources, have experienced small hits because many of their programs are paid for through user fees or utilities. He also said some programs, such as the time-consuming permitting of private docks to ensure they do not take away public access of waterways, may have to be delegated to communities.

But local communities are also suffering.

“There is nowhere to delegate this stuff,’’ said Shelley. “It’s just not going to get done.’’

Environmentalists and Bowles said some efforts, such as land conservation and money for capital projects for some bridges and parks, remain strong. But the cuts will mean significantly less year-round and seasonal staff at state parks - cuts the public will feel.

State officials say some parks won’t be staffed at all, while others will have fewer employees to assist visitors and fewer maintenance workers to pick up garbage and maintain grounds. The camping season this year will be shortened by several weeks at 16 of the state’s 29 campgrounds during the spring and fall.

“In making these staffing cuts, which were difficult and painful, our priority was to sustain park operations, enhance our visitors’ experience, and ensure public safety, which we believe is our core mission,’’ said DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr.

Jack Clarke, a policy expert and lobbyist with Mass Audubon, said he understands the economic crisis, but the state’s environmental budget makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s total budget - and that was before the cuts.

“We can do better,’’ he said.

Environmental budgets often get cut first, Clarke said, “but these are the agencies that do the enforcement of the air we breathe and the water we drink.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.