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March 07, 2009

 

DEC job cuts to affect state forests

Some see losses as weakening land management, timber harvesting

DECPhotos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Clute Road passes through Tuller Hill State Forest in Virgil. There are 15 state forests in the county and proposed state budget cuts to jobs in the Department of Environmental Conservation are expected to impact how forest lands are managed.

By ELAINE HUGHES
Staff Reporter
ehughes@cortlandstandard.net

Cortland County could take a hit this year in an area that has long boosted its economy, as the state plans to cut jobs from the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Across the state, Gov. David Paterson has proposed cutting 240 DEC jobs through a hiring freeze this year, though the state would not release how many workers could be cut from the Cortland office of the Division of Forests and Lands, which manages 51 state forests in six counties, including about 30,000 acres among 15 state forests in Cortland County.
As part of Paterson’s proposal, about $91 million would also be trimmed from the budget of the DEC, which already cut its budget by $32 million and eliminated more than 80 positions through attrition earlier this year at the governor’s request.
Yancey Roy, a DEC spokesman in Albany, said the agency does not know which jobs will be eliminated, since the budget is still being negotiated.
In the midst of its financial crisis, the state is overlooking a steady revenue-generating source, said Tom Gerow, the head of procurement for Wagner Lumber Co., which works with the DEC in harvesting timber from state forests in Cortland County.
“What’s happened in the past with budget cuts is the state cuts a few thousand dollars by not hiring a worker, without thinking about how many dollars of state revenue could be generated through timber sales,” Gerow said. “It doesn’t seem to make much sense.”
A 2006 report by the state Comptroller’s Office found DEC staffing shortages were causing only half of the timber eligible for sale to be harvested from state forests, which caused a loss of $3.7 million each year in state revenue from timber sales.
Between 2003 and 2006, the report states, DEC foresters were expected to conduct tree inventories in state forests, oversee timber harvests and sales, and plan for recreational uses of forested areas, as well as form long-range plans for state-owned land.
Further, the Comptroller’s Office said the state would need to spend about $1 million to hire 17 workers to perform some of these tasks, and the state would gain an additional $3.7 million each year in profits from timber sales after hiring these workers.
In a response to the report, DEC Commissioner Alex Grannis said the agency’s staffing levels have been cut by 28 percent between 1995 and 2006.
Roy said he did not think 17 additional foresters had ever been hired but emphasized the state Legislature determines the DEC’s budget and staffing levels.
“It’s not completely up to the DEC,” Roy said.
Cortland County’s forests were created during the Great Depression, after Congress authorized the nation’s Conservation Department, which later became the Department of the Interior, to acquire land by gift or purchase to create state forests in the State Reforestation Law of 1929 and the Hewitt Amendment of 1931.
Around 1930, many farmers went bankrupt, and the state began buying these abandoned farmlands to begin reforestation on these lands, which had suffered from soil erosion, according to the DEC.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to put people back to work through creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which assigned thousands of young men to plant trees on these newly acquired state lands.
As a result of the legislation, CCC camps were established in Truxton, DeRuyter, Sempronius and Slaterville Springs, with workers hand planting a total of more than 5 million trees in Cortland County state forests such as Tuller Hill, Maxon Creek, Cuyler Hill, Morgan Hill and James D. Kennedy Memorial State Forest.
But with a decrease in harvesting, state forests could become more stagnant and aged, which would make the trees more susceptible to insect manifestation, says the comptroller’s report.
Harvesting also increases the quality of public access roads and trails, which timber contractors need to use on a daily basis.
Elissa Sawyer works with DEC members as the chairman of the trail preservation committee for the New York State Plantation Walking Horse Club, which has been working since 2006 to clear 12 miles of trails in Tuller Hill State Forest that had not been maintained for 15 years.
“The DEC has been struggling with cutbacks for a number of years with periodic cuts,” Sawyer said. “We don’t ask for more trails and just want to maintain what we have. Our organization does try to give back to the trail system.”
Alex Gonzales, who lives off Orion Road in Virgil and is active in hiking and snowshoeing in Cortland County’s state forests, said he would expect budget cuts to push recreational trails farther back on the DEC’s agenda.
“I can’t say that I blame them,” Gonzales said, noting the DEC has many environmental operations that require attention.
At a Jan. 14 public meeting at Tompkins Cortland Community College, senior DEC forester Steve Clancy said the agency would be working with volunteers, as well as local snowmobiling, mountain biking and equestrian groups, to maintain trails through Cortland County’s state forests.
The DEC faces similar challenges as many businesses in the current economic climate, Clancy said at the meeting.
“But I still think we can go out and do some good,” he added.

 

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