Clash over state parks

O'Malley criticizes Ehrlich funding cuts

administration blames Assembly

October 13, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Democrat Martin O'Malley portrayed Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday as a pro-sprawl governor who has slashed the budget and staff of Maryland's park system while failing to preserve much open space.

During a news conference at North Point State Park in Baltimore County, O'Malley said that as governor his goal would be to protect 150,000 acres of land from development, more than twice the acreage preserved by Ehrlich over his four years in office.

"There has been a sad playbook that has been followed in our National Park Service for the last six years - reducing park rangers, jacking up fees and not taking care of our national parks," O'Malley said. "That same George Bush playbook has been applied to our own state parks, our state open spaces and our state forests."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said O'Malley's comments were off base.

"He has an unhealthy obsession with the president and obviously it's clouding his judgment here in Maryland," Fawell said.

Fawell said he didn't know the state parks budget figures for Ehrlich's first three years in office. But this year, Fawell said, the governor wanted to give the agency more money but was rebuffed by the legislature.

"The governor back in March held a press conference urging the General Assembly not to cut staff and funds from his parks budget, but they went ahead anyway," Fawell said.

The administration has preserved almost 70,000 acres, he said, adding, "Governor Ehrlich has preserved a total acreage about the size of Baltimore."

State records show that Ehrlich's preservation total is less than a third of the 220,000 acres preserved during the previous four years under Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Glendening protected 80,000 acres during his first term.

The Ehrlich administration cut the budget for the state park system from $45 million in fiscal 2002 to about $25 million this year, according to state figures.

The Maryland State Forest and Park Service was reorganized in 2005 and renamed the Maryland Park Service, with the number of employees falling from 321 in 2002 to 205 today. As part of the reorganization, about 90 park rangers were reassigned to the state Natural Resources Police, whose members have slightly different duties.

Seasonal employees hired to clean up trash and mow lawns in state parks fell from 520 in 2002 to 375 this year, state figures show. The number of full-time naturalists teaching children in the parks fell from 20 in 2003 to zero today.

O'Malley said the cuts have hurt maintenance in the state's 49 parks. He pointed to North Point's broken fishing pier, which was smashed by a storm in 2003 and never repaired.

Despite the neglect, O'Malley said, the governor raised fees for the state park system to among the highest in the nation, $75 for an annual park visitor's pass, up from $60 for residents in 2002.

Phil McKnelly, executive director of National Association of State Park Directors, said in a phone interview that Maryland's park fees are tied with Vermont's as the highest in the nation.

Fawell said O'Malley has been worse about raising fees, including the city's cell phone tax.

"If Mayor O'Malley really cared about the pocketbooks of his constituents, he would have started with his own constituents," Fawell said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.