I couldn’t get back to sleep one morning recently, so I got up and wrote this piece which I sent to the Ithaca Journal as a guest viewpoint. Hopefully, they will print it.
New York State Turns Sour at Buttermilk Falls
Will this beautiful swimming spot be closed this year?
New York has one of the finest state park systems in the country, with more than 200 parks and historic sites, enjoyed by more than 55 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, with the current deep recession, New York State is severely short of revenue and is forced to make harsh cuts in the budgets of state agencies and in aid to municipalities, including cutting support for state parks.
As a consequence, visitors to New York State Parks will experience severe reductions in services, shortened operating seasons, and delay of vital infrastructure repairs and improvements. Operations, maintenance, security, environmental education, recreation, and seasonal employee hiring will be trimmed back below levels necessary to operate the park system effectively and safely. Worst of all, 57 state parks and historic sites are slated to be closed outright. Never before since the system was created have our parks taken such a hit. An additional 34 parks and historic sites may be closed, and a total of 40 parks could see significant service reductions.
Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, state parks experienced an unrivaled period of development and expansion, due to world-famous New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Many of the things we love and enjoy about our state parks date from that era, including our beautiful stone masonry trails, cabins, camping areas, picnic areas, beautiful stone and timber pavilions, and delightful natural swimming areas, including, in the Finger Lakes Region, gorge swimming areas at Stony Brook State Park, Fillmore Glen, Robert H. Treman State Park, and Buttermilk Falls State Park.
Several state parks in the Finger Lakes Region are to be closed, including Two Rivers in Tioga County, Newtown Battlefield (a Revolutionary War Site) in Chemung County, Bona Vista State Golf Course in Seneca County, Springbrook Greens State Park in Cayuga County, and Chimney Bluffs and Beechwood State Parks in Wayne County along the shore of Lake Ontario. In addition, the gorge swimming areas at Stony Brook State Park in Steuben County and at Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca are to be closed, as well as the beach at Seneca Lake State Park in Geneva. Local residents will not be able to enjoy these parks, nor will tourists, who bring vital income to local businesses in small upstate communities.
The New York State Council of Parks 2009 annual report stated,
“A recent study documented that New York’s State Park System generates $1.9 billion in economic activity every year – five times the agency’s total annual budget. Closing State Parks will hurt local tourism industries and create negative economic impacts much greater than the modest savings to the state budget.”
As well as having important economic value for their surrounding communities, all of our state parks are precious resources for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Without access to these landscape gems in our midst, the quality of our lives will be diminished.
During the summer in the City of Ithaca, there are just two crowded municipal pools. Fortunately, the community is blessed with four state parks nearby, three of them with swimming areas. Especially charming and remarkable are the two natural gorge swimming areas, the one at Robert Treman State Park and the second at the base of Buttermilk Falls. Created during the Great Depression, these spots are irreplaceable. Current regulations preclude the creation of any more of these remarkable spots, now only permitting the establishment of conventional pools and beaches.
Buttermilk Falls has the added advantage of being on the municipal bus line, TCAT. The bus brings families with children and camp groups to the falls to escape the heat and to swim and dive safely at one of the most beautiful spots they will ever experience. That will end, of course, if the state closes swimming at Buttermilk Falls this year to save a little money on maintenance and lifeguards.
Shutting down gorge and waterfall swimming areas means the loss to New Yorkers of the experience of paradise right here in New York. Swimming at the base of a splashing waterfall is something you dream about doing in the tropics, in Hawaii. But you can find it right here in the Finger Lakes Region each summer. Visitors to the New York State Fair, upon seeing pictures of the swimming areas at Buttermilk Falls or Robert H. Treman State Parks, exclaim, “Where IS that place?!” How do I get there?!”
Saving Money or Risking Lives?
Natural pools in the gorge tempt swimmers.
Ithaca is famous for its gorges, with their waterfalls, pools, and lush, cool forests. But, unfortunately, Ithaca’s gorges are also famous for their fatalities. And one of the most common causes of death in Ithaca’s gorges is drowning. One of the highest priorities of rangers and park police in gorges in Ithaca is to keep people out of delightfully inviting, but deceivingly hazardous natural rock pools, including those in Buttermilk Glen. There is a long history of tragedies in such places, something usually not appreciated by those who risk their lives diving from cliffs into unknown hazards under water. Over the years, a number of young, promising lives have ended in a pool at the base of a cliff or waterfall.
Years ago, the president of Ithaca High School’s graduating class perished while diving from a cliff in the City’s Sixmile Creek Preserve. Two summers ago, a Cornell student drowned in Fall Creek Gorge under the Suspension Bridge, after sliding down a slick rock into a natural pool. In the 1990s, a young man from Elmira who was about to enter college dove into one of the pools near Pinnacle Rock in Buttermilk Glen, upstream and away from the guarded swimming area at the main falls. A park ranger told me that the young man came back up under a ledge, under water, banging his head. He drowned right there in front of his friends. There are other such stories, including ones involving the deaths of small children.
When a ranger orders people out of the pools in Buttermilk Glen, he or she tells them to go to the guarded swimming area at the base of Buttermilk Falls. There they can swim safely, and legally. But gorge rangers will not be able to offer that alternative this year if the Buttermilk Falls swimming area is closed. There may be many more people tempted to swim in dangerous unguarded areas, increasing the likelihood of another tragedy.
The closing of the swimming area at Buttermilk Falls this year may save Albany a tiny amount of money. But will it cost some family the life of one of its children? Where would that fit into the budget calculations?
It’s understandable that in such dire economic times that financial pain and sacrifice should be spread evenly. But at the other end of the state is the cause of this mess. As New Yorkers tighten their belts and put up with poorer services and decreased public safety, their anger must grow when they think about the fat cats on Wall Street who caused this economic meltdown. And the public’s anger increases when we learn that these corporate outlaws are raking in millions and even billions in bonuses in reward for their manipulation of the trillions of public dollars spent on bailing them out from their reckless behavior.
Perhaps the people of New York State should insist that state government tax Wall Street to make up for the mess they created, rather than squeezing a few dollars out of lovely spots such as Buttermilk Falls.
If you want to prevent the closing of our state parks and their swimming areas, you must push back at Albany. Contact your state senator and state assemblyperson, and the governor, and insist that they not close these precious places!
Environmental Educator, retired
New York State Parks