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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 3, 2010

Thacher opens
Is our park a national treasure?

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Triumphant crowds roamed Thacher Park on Memorial Day after the legislature voted late last week to keep state parks open.

In a game of political brinksmanship, the legislature, pressured by the governor’s office with park closings, waited until Friday to agree to using money from the Environmental Protection Fund to keep the parks open.

In February, Thacher, which runs along the Helderberg escarpment, was listed along with more than 50 state parks and historic sites that would be closed because of New York’s flagging economy and budget shortfall.

Since then, the parks have been a rallying point for citizens angry with their government.  Several dozen people gathered outside the capitol in protest on March 3 and groups around the state organized letter-writing campaigns, including the Friends of John Boyd Thacher State Park.

“Statewide, there was a big outcry,” said John Kilroy, president of that group.  He attributes the legislature’s action to grassroots efforts on the part of citizens.  The Friends of Thacher posted a sample letter on its website for people to send to their representatives, he said, adding that he sent over 300 letters for students at Colonie High School, where he teaches biology and environmental science.

“Not only the volume, but the quality of the letters” was remarkable, said Assemblyman John McEneny, who represents a district that includes Thacher Park.  Many of the letters told personal stories about the park, he said.  The billions of dollars discussed during the budget process is abstract to most people, McEneny said, but everyone can understand the immediacy of a couple who was engaged at the park but unable to be married there because it is closed.

“They understand that perfectly,” he said.  “You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand that.”

Several of the letters he got shared similar stories.  “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved,” McEneny said, concluding of Thacher, “It’s got to be one of the most romantic places in the Capital Region.”

“It is its romantic wooded rock scenery, dark caverns, and sprayey waterfalls, its varied landscape and accessible mountain grandeur, that render the Helderberg interesting to artist, author, poet, tourist, or rusticator,” wrote Verplanck Colvin in the Oct. 1869 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  “To those who desire to escape for a day from the oven-like city in summer… to view spots sacred to legends of wild Revolutionary days, of Tory and Indian depredation, naming place, precipice, and mountain… the ‘Indian Ladder’ region of the Helderbergs offers superior inducements.”

That area was given to the state in 1914 by Emma Treadwell Thacher, to bear her late husband’s name.  The park was steadily used through the 1960s, said Timothy Albright, of the New Scotland Historic Preservation Commission, and, in the 1950s, the state built parking lots, an overlook, and a pool. 

“I’m just asking our politicians to fund it like they did in 1952,” Albright said this week.

In the 1990s, Albright undertook a campaign to have the park included on the state and national register of historic places as a historic district.  “It certainly met the criteria,” he said, but he didn’t have the time to follow through with the process.  Recently, he suggested that McEneny take up the pursuit.

Neither were sure how exactly the park would benefit, but, McEneny said, “It might give us added protection.”  He’s spoken to the division of historic preservation about the idea, he said, explaining, “It’s a new concept.  I’m just exploring it.”

The legislature kept open for the year the 55 state parks and historic sites that had been slated to close by taking $6 million in funds that would have gone into the Environmental Protection Fund.  That fund is down $88 million from the previous year’s budget and is expected to be $134 million, according to figures from the state’s budget division.  Most of the balance will be put into the state’s general fund, according to a release from the governor’s office.

Some of the biggest reductions in the Environmental Protection Fund are for waterfront revitalization, which was cut in half, to $12 million; land acquisition, which will now be less than a third of its former $60 million; and farmland protection, which was halved to about $11 million.

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