We can’t blame Mother Nature for the thunderstorm that hit Rye and every other Westchester community last month. In the County Executive’s proposed 2012 budget, the position of curator/supervisor at six nature centers, including Edith Read Sanctuary and the Marshlands Conservancy, are to be eliminated.
By Robin Jovanovich
We can’t blame Mother Nature for the thunderstorm that hit Rye and every other Westchester community last month. In the County Executive’s proposed 2012 budget, the position of curator/supervisor at six nature centers, including Edith Read Sanctuary and the Marshlands Conservancy, is to be eliminated.
The reaction from residents was fast and furious. They expressed outrage and keen disappointment. Their recurring argument was that you can’t just pitch in for parks for them to remain open and functional, and an educational experience.Dr. Joy Reidenberg, President of Friends of Read, said, “Nature centers depend on supervision and volunteers. The supervisor needs to be knowledgeable about conservation, the park’s environment, and its specific needs, such as ongoing habitat management projects.”
Nature isn’t free, and it’s essential, stressed Rye Nature Center Executive Director Christine Siller. “There is a cost to stewardship. Land doesn’t conserve itself. Furthermore, as well documented, Americans don’t gain nature education in school, but from informal settings.” She added, “These cuts move us eight steps backwards.”
Notwithstanding the rumor mill, County Executive Rob Astorino has not proposed closing the preserves (Rye’s two and Cranberry Lake, Croton Point Nature Center, Trailside Nature Museum, and Lenoir Preserve). His budget does however cut the seven curatorial staff, whose annual salaries and benefits total $637,000.
“We started with a $114 million budget gap. We had to make tough budget decisions across the board, cutting $100 million in spending year over year,” said Ned McCormack, Mr. Astorino’s Communications Director. “And we made those decisions with input from every board and commission.”
McCormack stressed that all six parks would remain open and continue to be maintained by the Parks Department. “It’s unfortunate that they’ll have to operate without the current five-day-a-week benefit of a curator. Those are seven out of the 110 County jobs we had to cut.”
Read Curator Michael Gambino wrote that he found it “inconceivable” the County Executive would “even consider terminating the entire Conservation Division of the County Parks Department. Local tax dollars have paid for parks and for staff to provide meaningful, nature-based activities for families, school and Scout groups, veterans, and other community organizations.”
Park curators and naturalists provide more than public programming, added Gambino. “They also serve a very important function in protecting endangered species in the park and managing visitors to ensure there is no negative impact on wildlife and plant life.”
County spokesman McCormack said they are looking for public/private partnerships to help fund entities like the nature centers. “With the collective bargaining units slow to come to the table, we have had no choice but to resort to layoffs. In October, we made a presentation to County employees asking that they contribute to their health care benefits at the same rate as state employees have agreed to with Governor Cuomo. The unions have not responded. If they agreed to the plan, it would save the County $23,000,000 next year.”
Bird Homestead President Anne Stillman thinks we should do whatever we can to keep the curators at both Read and Marshlands. “Nature education is more important than ever with children spending so much time in front of computers.”
Dr. Reidenberg said one potential solution is to hire a private curator who could be shared by the Marshlands and the Sanctuary. “Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive for most Friends groups. It would exhaust our funds in one to two years and not allow for programs.” She added, “We really need our current curator.”
County Legislator Judy Myers has vowed to fight to restore the curators. “Given the short-sighted and reckless cuts to our valuable County-owned and maintained nature centers, including two in Rye, I am currently working to restore the curator positions to the proposed 2012 budget. The short-term savings are minimal in comparison to the expensive and extensive damage that would ensue without the eyes and ears of the curators, without their leadership and education to all of the valuable volunteers who work to preserve these sanctuaries, and without the guidance and stewardship that they provide for each and every visitor.”
Myers continued, “I am pleased to say that I have received over 300 emails, phone calls and postcards urging me not to let the nature centers’ curators go unfunded in next year’s budget.”
The next public hearing on the 2012 County budget will be held at the Little Theater in the Westchester County Center in White Plains at 7 p.m.