Boston Harbor Islands Visitor Numbers Soar, Still Lack Proper Funding

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Ben Wright

Environment Massachusetts

Boston – As the visiting season for the Boston Harbor Islands comes to a close this week, park officials are touting the big crowds while worrying about what the next year may have in store. Despite the high turnout, budget cuts are leaving parks like the Boston Harbor Islands with shovel-ready projects still waiting for funding. 

Environment Massachusetts, a state-wide, citizen based advocacy organization, released a new report, Best of America: Popular Parks under Threat from Underfunding, which details national parks facing budget cuts for next year, even as the number of visitors going to the parks has increased in the past year. 

The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area saw a significant increase in the number of visitors heading to the park in the last few years. According to the National Park Service estimates 375,000 visitors enjoyed the park in 2008, and that number grew to an estimated 409,000 in 2009. 2010 is expected to be larger still, bringing an estimated half a million residents and out-of-town visitors coming to explore the islands. That is a larger crowd than at 14 sold-out games at Fenway Park. 

Eleanor Fort, Preservation Advocate for Environment Massachusetts, says, “At a time when families on a tight budget are opting for a ‘stay-cation’ as opposed to a vacation, we should be giving our parks the resources they need to stay beautiful.”

On July 14th, 2010, a new visitor center on George’s Island opened to the public. An old, historic building housed maintenance equipment and offered visitors little more than a snack bar. The Patrick Administration helped support building an energy-efficient, solar powered garage for the equipment, and revamped the historic building to include an exhibit hall, movie theatre, community meeting room, and café. The project was celebrated as a smart investment in tough times, and helped dramatically increase visitorship.  

Despite the increasing popularity of the Islands, there are several shovel-ready projects still waiting on the necessary funding to move forward. One of which is the George’s Island Pier. The decades-old dock is old and creaky, with limited space for boats to disembark. A project to upgrade and modernize the dock would help revitalize the central hub of the park, giving visitors with a positive first impression as they take their first step on shore. Yet no federal funding has been offered to help the park break ground on the project, and it could be years before the project is realized.

“The Boston Harbor Islands are a treasure and provide us with a tremendous opportunity because of their proximity to a major metropolitan area,” says Tom Powers, President of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. “To realize its full potential, the park is still waiting for funding for projects like the rebuilding of the George’s Island Pier that would help increase visitorship and improve the islands for generations to come.”

National parks generate more than four dollars in value to local communities’ economies for every dollar invested. A combination of federal, state, and private interests support the Boston Harbor Islands and help fund projects. While private investors and state programs have increased their investments over the years, federal support is stagnant.

According to the report released by Environment Massachusetts, in 2009 national parks across the country saw a 4% increase in the number of visitors, to the highest level in nearly a decade. During a sluggish economy, national parks provide families with affordable vacation destinations.

Yet despite the fact that more and more people are flocking to our most treasured places, our national park service has had its proposed budget slashed by $22 million for this next year. Despite an $8 billion backlog in maintenance, 70% of our national parks will face a budget cut in 2011. 

Environment Massachusetts’ report comes as the Obama administration develops its preservation agenda through its “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” and Congress deliberates over the annual National Parks Service budget.

Eleanor Fort, Preservation Advocate for Environment Massachusetts, said the report highlights the “urgent need for the Obama administration and Congress to fulfill the promise of our national parks program and provide these treasured places with the resources they need.”