Unnecessary choices

November 16, 2007

Kind of an ugly choice: Maryland's parks, financially starved for so long that critical services have all but shut down, stand to gain a $5 million infusion of new state money next year. But the rescue would come at the expense of Program Open Space money to the counties, now often used to create parks.

As the General Assembly wraps up the financial details of its special session, park advocates and environmentalists are conflicted. Taking from one "green" pocket to give to another doesn't seem like an overall advance in preserving and protecting the state's wild and wonderful places.

And in a sense, three environmental programs have been pitted against one another to compete for the same money. While the House would send county Open Space money to the parks, the Senate would use it to help finance a Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund to combat the effects of rainwater runoff.

These choices shouldn't have to be made. With the governor and many state lawmakers declaring the environment, and the troubled bay in particular, a top priority, surely the state's most historically cash-strapped agencies ought to be on the priority list for new funds. And land preservation programs, such as Program Open Space, are supposed to have an exclusive claim on the state share of real estate transfer taxes.

Maryland's 49 state parks have been slighted for more than a decade, with a budget that's seen steady cuts in staff despite greater responsibilities. Entrance fees among the highest in the nation and volunteer contributions have not been able to fill the gap.

A new study, only the latest of a series of warnings, deemed the state parks to be in "a state of crisis." Lifeguards at beaches, concessions at campgrounds, educational programs and visitor centers are all at risk.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to add $5 million to the parks budget won't solve all the problems, but it's a start. A rescue for state parks and forests, though, shouldn't have to mean less money for open space or for curbing rainwater runoff. These environmental programs are all linked, and they play a critical role in the economic health of Maryland as well as the quality of life here.

Marylanders are asking for greater environmental protection and preservation; this is no time to be scrimping on staff at key agencies. Volunteers can only do so much.

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