Transforming parks to maintain connections to nature

—   Photo by Dylan Longton

John Boyd Thacher State Park — shown here in an aerial photo by Dylan Longton of Slingerlands — got its first-ever master plan in 2013. The plan calls for both cliff-climbing as well as a ropes adventure course.

NEW SCOTLAND — The changing type of “nature” that visitors of John Boyd Thacher State Park will see in the future is still up in the air. The proposed ropes adventure course to be built at the park has some local residents concerned, but the state parks department said this week that no specifics have been decided and that detailed environmental reviews are forthcoming.

The New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation department created a first-ever master plan in 2013 to reinvigorate attendance at Thacher Park; in addition to the creation of a new visitors’ center, the plan calls for both allowing rock climbing on the cliff face, as well as, separately, bringing in a vendor to run a ropes adventure course.

Under the plan, the cliff climbing would require permits and would be managed by the park according to effects on endangered species, climber accessibility, and rock-face stability.

Local residents have complained that the state gave the state-selected vendor, Thacher Adventure Excursions, also known as Wildplay, free choice of the 2,000-acre park in which to set up a trendy tourist activity. Wildplay Element Parks runs similar adventure courses across Canada.

Residents here also expressed concern that the rock face would be damaged, and that the ropes course could affect the natural surroundings with both too much noise and physical damage.

“I’ve heard rumors of this potentially going on,” said New Scotland Supervisor Douglas LaGrange. “We have no purview over the park. If enough people come out, we would want to contact State Parks and Recreation to voice our concerns.”

LaGrange said that the state’s park department might not change its plans for the park if given a town board’s opinion.

“The state does what the state will do,” he said.

One local Thacher advocate, Timothy Albright of New Scotland, told The Enterprise that the park department has not been forthcoming about the effects of the adventure course on the forest along Thacher’s famous cliffs.

“We object,” he said, citing a lack of information provided about expected numbers of tourists, the number of parking spaces needed, and where restrooms might be installed. The state has told him that his objections are too late and that decisions have been made, he said.

Environmental studies done

Randy Simons, the public information officer for the State Parks, told The Enterprise that Wildplay was chosen by bid.

Bids came in according to the state’s requests for a high ropes course with obstacles designed for both environmental protection and park functionality, he said. The state awarded Wildplay the contract; now, Wildplay will return a more detailed proposal for its adventure course at Thacher.

“They have not submitted a proposal,” Simons said. “We expect the plans to be in this spring/summer — definitely by fall. We included the Yellow Rocks picnic area, the Greenhouse picnic area, and Hop Field” in materials for the vendor, or concessionaire.

“Few people are using it,” he said of the three sites.

“We’ve done environmental plans and reviews on our proposed areas,” Simons said. The three sites were initially chosen because they are low-usage spaces, he  said.

Wildplay, when submitting its proposal, can suggest a different location, he said. The state will do more environmental reviews if Wildplay’s proposal does not include one of the three spots already examined, he said.

Albright said that the park’s master plan did not contain specifics.

“Screaming and yelling through trees will affect the meditative state of the forest,” Albright said.

“We did environmental impact studies on those areas,” Simons said. After the state receives Wildplay’s proposal, the state will do more extensive environmental studies, he said.

Changing park

Thacher Park welcomed residents from Albany County and the city of Albany for decades. City buses transported riders to the park’s swimming pool for 10-cent fares each summer. Visiting the pool was a rite of passage for many county residents; the pool closed in 2006 in disrepair.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy told The Enterprise that the pool’s closing was disappointing.

“It exposed inner-city kids to green space, the outdoors,” he said, adding that he was one of those city kids.

The county has worked to create a similar experience at Lawson Lake “to bring back that experience,” McCoy said.

“You’ve lost what Thacher Park meant to me as a kid,” he said. “It’s hard to get that back.”

McCoy said that the county will work with the town of New Scotland as business develops around parks in the town, like Thacher Park and the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center.

Areas in the town near Five Rivers, which is a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation facility, face development pressures.

“It’s up to the town,” McCoy said about development outside the state-run facilities at Five Rivers and Thacher. “They have to decide how much growth they want. They need to say, what do we want to look like at the end of the day.”

Within Thacher, the revitalization of the park includes a $3.8 million visitors’ center in addition to the ropes adventure course.

“Letting someone come in and take over is absolutely not true,” Simons reiterated. A plan to allow a vendor to “sacrifice or compromise the integrity of the cliffs is completely untrue,” he said.

“We’ll review the proposal first,” he said. “If we deem that it is feasible, we will begin those [environmental] studies.”
“We think we’re on the right plan to transforming the park,” Simons said.

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