Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece was written by Kim R. Nilsen and appeared in The Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun. Founder of The Cohos Trail Association, designer of the 162-mile foot trail and now semi-retired, Nilsen still routinely takes care of severely handicapped young people and builds and restores structures at Camp Glen Brook in Marlborough, N.H. Formerly, he was a marketing manager with After The Falls natural fruit juice company in Vermont and Blue Range Natural Beverages of New Hampshire. He devotes two whole weeks each year to trail work directly on the trail system and he writes grants and cultivates sponsors for the association.
The decline in the condition of non-revenue generating state parks in New Hampshire is something to behold. In a state where nearly one in two economic dollars is directly or indirectly linked to tourism, a hobbled park system makes little sense.
In the Monadnock region, frustrations over the status of Pisgah State Park found expression in legal action. A simple little foot bridge in Chesterfield Gorge received no attention whatsoever for nearly half a year now. Despite the desire of local volunteers to maintain and even fund projects at that little wayside, repeated requests for attention and action have not be answered.
The root of the problem stems largely, not from state employees not taking action, but from the state’s insistence for several decades now that the park system be self-funded by income generated by the parks themselves. This has resulted in a few very popular parks or parks viewed as economic development targets getting the lion’s share of the resources.
Because of the recent severe recession and the real need to allocate resources wisely, non-revenue generating parks have either fallen off the map in terms of priority or the park designation has been set aside and the public lands increasingly seen as generators of income, particularly from timber resources. (I, personally, am not opposed to harvesting timber wisely.)
The decline in our lesser utilized parks can be reversed, and there are several avenues open for a resurgence.
I have built trails and trail infrastructure from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border for 20 years, and everywhere I have ventured I have found a host of dedicated volunteers who put in real effort on trails and structures, such as foot bridges, lean-tos, tent platforms, sign kiosks, and the like. Volunteer groups abound from Coos to the seacoast and they are a real powerhouse that state officials have, for the most part, worked closely and well with.
I now think it is essential for our state legislators to give, through newly drafted legislation, increased powers to volunteer groups so they may make some decisions, make improvements, raise their own funds for park projects, and carry out normal maintenance at non-revenue generating state parks, state waysides, and other state recreational resources. Give that army of volunteers the liberty so they can get done what the Parks and Recreation can’t because of severe funding and legislated constraints. These volunteer groups cost the taxpayer nothing, yet they generate untold dollars in free services every year.
Legislators absolutely must revisit the way New Hampshire funds its park system. Our representatives need to take action on this as quickly as possible, else we’ll have buildings falling to the ground, bridges collapsing, trails unwalkable, trash buildup overwhelming, illegal use proliferating, and so forth (all of which I witness now whenever I am out and about in the state; one can pick up just so many Bud Lite cans).
There are many who will rise to the occasion to maintain our public lands. Give them the freedom to do so. Without it, frustrations will continue to proliferate over the decline of many of our cherished parks, antagonism between citizens and state officials will surely increase, and scarce resources will be devoted to battles on legal fronts rather than be used appropriately to care for these wonderful public places in this great state of ours.