Thacher Park should preserve and illuminate the natural world

We’ve long loved John Boyd Thacher State Park and are pleased the state has drafted a master plan for its future.

In 2010, in the midst of Wall Street’s meltdown, as New York State faced a deficit of over $8 billion, the governor at the time, David Paterson, threatened to close Thacher along with other parks. The uproar was immense. Tens of thousands of Thacher supporters joined online groups, others spoke through bullhorns at the capitol, while still others wrote letters to us — all rallying to keep the park open.

We hope those same people make the effort to read the proposed plan — available online at the New York State Office of Parks’ website and at the public libraries in Berne, Guilderland, and Voorheesville  — and then make their thoughts known at tonight’s public hearing or in writing in the days ahead.

We support much of the plan. It makes sense to combine the 308 acres in Knox, which is now called the Thompson’s Lake State Park, featuring a lakeside campground and educational center, with the 2,157 acres in Guilderland, New Scotland, Berne, and Knox, which has the cliff edge of the Helderberg escarpment and iconic Indian Ladder Trail. The two areas are close together, already linked by trails through the Patroon Land Foundation, and complement each other.

Combining them would allow more efficient management, a potential cost savings, and most importantly a shared vision.

The plan is correct when it says the “magnificent panorama” visible from the top of the escarpment “has no parallel in the Capital District.” Not only can park visitors see the Hudson and Mohawk valleys as well as the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, but people from far-off places can see the distinctive escarpment, a defining mark on the horizon.

The planners are wise to look beyond this obvious attraction to highlight and preserve other park attributes. Making the park into a living museum for natural history — complete with a visitors’ center and edifying signs — is a worthwhile idea.

The draft outlines such “action steps” as creating a natural heritage area to recognize “the statewide significant status of the Calcareous Cliff community along the cliff of the escarpment,” to expand the existing Bird Conservation Area, and to reduce the invasive plant species on parkland.

One aspect of the plan that troubles us is making a central area of the park that once contained an Olympic-size swimming pool into a “challenge course” with ropes, cables, and obstacles. The course, which would “invite participants to confront their fears in a controlled situation,” would be operated by “park personnel who will receive training from professional challenge course instructors,” the plan says.

Additionally, proposals are to be solicited from concessionaires to develop a high-ropes adventure course.

We don’t see how this fits with a mission of allowing the public to enjoy and understand nature as it exists in the park. Hiring outside concessionaires and training park staff in high-risk extreme sports would open the door to liability while doing nothing to further preservation. We even question the plan to allow rock climbing in a place that geologists have considered unique if not sacred for more than a century.

The plan outlined for cave management is in better keeping with the mission to preserve natural resources while educating the public. It says authorized representatives of the Northeast Caving Conservancy will locate and map caves in the park and then a plan will be written on strategies for permitting guided cave exploration. This makes more sense than opening the caves to the public, preserving for example, bat hibernacula. Bats, an essential part of our ecosystem, have been rapidly losing ground in recent years.

 If the point of the “challenge course” is to draw visitors, why not re-build the pool, which was a centerpiece of the park for decades? The pool was closed in 2006 as the state’s Office of Parks announced with great fanfare that Thacher would be the first state park in New York to get a waterslide as part of a $3 million project to renovate the pool complex.

We don’t care much about the waterslide but we think a pool is useful for a park and a community to have. While the current master-plan draft calls for expanding the small beach at Thompson’s Lake, this wouldn’t be the draw the pool once was. As we wrote at the time the pool was closed, generations of Hilltown residents worked at the Thacher pool — as ticket-takers, in the concession stand, in the locker rooms, or as lifeguards. The attraction drew thousands to the park, spilling over to help fuel the local economy.

The old pool also fulfilled a, perhaps unintentional, social function. It was one of the few places in the rural Hilltowns where children of different backgrounds — rich and poor; black and white; bused in from the city, driven in from the country — swam and played together.

“It’s not going to stay demolished and a hole in the ground,” the park manager told us at the time the pool was closed. “The park needs an attraction of some sort. I’m just not sure what it will be.”

We believe Thacher Park needs a pool far more than a challenge course. It doesn't have to be a $3 million waterslide playland to compete with amusement park attractions. It needs to be a safe and available place for children and grownups to gather, to learn how to swim and to enjoy each other’s company in the beauty of the Helderbergs.

It would be more worthwhile to train park staff to teach swimming — although Red Cross-trained volunteers used to do a good job for no pay — than it would be to train them to run a challenge course.

The statistics are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 people in the United States die every day from unintentional drowning. The leading cause is lack of swimming ability.

And, also according to the CDC, for every child who died from drowning, another five receive emergency care with more than half requiring hospitalization; this compares with a hospitalization rate of about 6 percent for all unintentional injuries.

The drowning injuries that don’t kill can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic function — a vegetative state.

These risks are real and present every time a kid is tempted on a hot summer day to jump into an untended swimming pool or pond or river; they’re not risks that have to be imported by a hired concessionaire. Having a pool where kids can safely learn to swim would be a wise investment for the state.

Those are our views. Make yours known. Put down your newspaper and head to the New Scotland Town Hall. The hearing starts at 7 p.m.

When Governor Martin Glynn announced Emma Treadwell Thacher’s gift of parkland in 1914, he called it “a voluntary gift to the people of the state.” We, the people, need to speak.

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