Governor Deval Patrick's administration has been pushing to revitalize the state's badly underfunded 450,000-acre park system by reviving and launching dozens of "Friends of" groups to provide volunteers and fund-raising at individual state parks, forests, and beaches.
But many of those efforts have been stymied by the need for the groups, typically operating on shoestring budgets, to buy expensive liability insurance for festivals and cleanups. State bureaucracy complications have snagged many groups trying to raise funds for specific Department of Conservation and Recreation properties, officials say.
Last week, Patrick signed into law a low-profile piece of legislation that state officials and parks boosters are optimistic could lead to a new boom in park volunteerism and fund-raising efforts when it takes effect next year. It would extend the state's liability coverage to protect parks' friends groups for ordinary accidents that do not involve severe negligence or dangerous conduct. It also streamlines a thicket of bureaucracy that had snagged many groups trying to raise funds for improvements at DCR parks.
"It's good for the friends groups, it's good for us, and it's good for the parks," said DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox.
Emily Norton, founder and president of Friends of Willard Brook, which supports five parks and forests and a bicycle trail in northwestern Middlesex County, said the passage of the law will enable her group to hold a winter festival fund-raiser early next year in Ashby and Townsend with ice sculptures, nature walks, campfire stories, and a rescue-dog exhibition. Norton lobbied her state senator, Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat, to carry the legislation through to passage.
With less than $1,000 in its bank account, the Willard Brook group was facing bills next month for $400 in general liability insurance and $500 more to provide personal liability insurance for the friends group's officers and directors.
"It was a question of do we pay our liability insurance and not have a winter carnival, or do we not pay our liability insurance and then we wouldn't be able to have a winter carnival because we didn't have any insurance?" Norton said. "If we have to spend lots of time just raising money before we can even help the parks, it's very frustrating. I am optimistic this will improve the relationship between DCR and friends groups."
Ed Murray, who chairs the Friends of Breakheart Reservation in Saugus, predicted the new law would similarly free up $1,000 a year his group can devote to improving and promoting the park, which features walking trails and a pond with a beach.
Across the state, about 70 friends groups have been formed to supplement work by DCR rangers and maintenance crews, Fox said. But groups have widely varying levels of funding and support, and scores of state parks and forests have no organized public support groups. DCR commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said he hopes the law will encourage formation of dozens of new friends groups.
The support of friends groups has become crucial to maintaining the state parks system, whose funding was slashed from $127.4 million in 2000 to $86.6 million in 2004, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group that tracks state spending.
Under Patrick, this year's funding is $121 million, and the agency faces an estimated $1.3 billion backlog of maintenance work.