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NY, Pa. historic sites fall victim to budget cuts

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CHRIS CAROLA | March 19, 2010 04:01 PM EST | AP


ALBANY, N.Y. — State budget cuts in tough economic times are falling on historic sites, from George Washington's Continental Army encampments to a World War II Holocaust refugee center.

Several states in the Northeast and elsewhere are closing or reducing hours at state-owned historic sites because of tight budgets. Preservation advocates say the situation is most dire in Pennsylvania and New York.

Washington Crossing Historic Park in suburban Philadelphia, where Washington and his troops launched their 1776 Christmas night attack across the Delaware River on Hessian troops in Trenton, N.J., has been closed – a casualty of Pennsylvania's spending cuts.

New York plans to shutter 13 of its 35 historic sites and cut the hours at another, in addition to closing two battlefields that are part of the state parks system. In Pennsylvania, at least five of 23 state historic locations have been closed and several others are operating on reduced schedules as the state faces a projected $525 million shortfall in 2010.

New Jersey's historic sites will remain open but may have their hours altered this year, while Arizona has already closed two state historic parks and placed five others on five-day schedules. Deals are in the works to allow local municipalities or groups to manage four other Arizona historic parks targeted for closure, including the Tombstone Courthouse, built in 1882, a year after Wyatt Earp's famous gunfight at the nearby OK Corral.

For New York, the situation could get even worse. Gov. David Paterson's budget proposal to close New York's multibillion-dollar deficit also calls for shutting down dozens of other parks and historic sites if the Legislature rejects his proposal to dip into the state's Environmental Protection Fund.

"It is a response to this immediate problem of an over-$9 billion deficit we have right now," said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for New York's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Questions have arisen over whether states can close parks and historic sites that receive federal funding. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, said Friday the head of the National Parks Service has told him that by law, federally funded state parks and historic landmarks must remain open to the public. Hinchey said a majority of the sites Paterson proposes to close have received federal funds.

Keefe said the bottom line is the agency just doesn't have the money to keep all the sites open.

Included on Paterson's second list is the Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, where the commander of America's first army spent the last 16 months of the Revolutionary War. Nearby Washington-related historic sites on the state's initial closure list include the New Windsor Cantonment, Knox's Headquarters and Fort Montgomery.

"What we're killing here is our soul in terms of our heritage," said James Johnson, a retired Army colonel and a former West Point military historian.

Johnson has worked with local history buffs and community groups to promote the Hudson Valley's many Revolutionary War landmarks, in particular Fort Montgomery, just south of West Point. Opened as a historic site just eight years ago, the fort was the scene of a bloody battle in 1777.

"New York state has an incredible array of historic sites from the American Revolution and I've always thought of them as a string of pearls we've been able to link together to help people understand the importance of New York in the outcome," Johnson said.

Many New York historic sites slated for closing are used for school field trips. Joe Ryan, head of the Westchester County-based Living History Education Foundation, says closing them would cut off thousands of students from vital outdoor classroom experiences.

"What really gets kids involved is when they walk the land, when they realize this place is important," said Ryan, who taught social studies at a Westchester middle school for 32 years.

New York historic sites slated for closure span the state's and the nation's history.

Westchester's Philipse Manor Hall dates from colonial times and Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario is from the War of 1812. The John Brown Farm near Lake Placid harks back to the abolitionist era and Oswego's Fort Ontario was home in the 1940s to a World War II refugee center for Holocaust survivors.

Several sites and battlefields – including New York's Bennington and Oriskany – played roles in the Battles of Saratoga in 1777, among the most important American victories of the Revolutionary War.

"A lot of them are state-significant, but a fair number of them are of national significance," said Adrian Fine, director of the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Pennsylvania historic sites spokesman Kirk Wilson said the state hopes to have all its sites open this spring or summer, including Washington's Crossing. He said the state has been enlisting the aid of local groups to help staff and maintain the sites.

But volunteers can only do so much for places where older structures and artifact collections require expertise in historic preservation, Fine said.

"Nonprofits don't have a lot of resources," he said. "They just can't do the level of care these sites need."