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DEC not considering user fees for hikers, paddlers

ALBANY - State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis told legislators Tuesday that his agency is not considering charging hikers who frequent state land.

Grannis' comments were prompted by a line of questioning by local state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward at a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Environmental Conservation committees.

"I know that people like to hike on the land for free, but there are funding difficulties that are related to that, like trail maintenance and rescue operations," Sayward said. "Has there been any further talk about having a fee for hikers?"

"There has not," Grannis said. "We haven't even figured out how we would be able to do that."

The current draft Executive Budget calls for a 13 percent reduction in DEC's operating budget in 2010-2011, which includes the elimination of dozens of DEC positions.

Grannis said that there are some potential methods of revenue generation, citing a recent report from the Office of the State Comptroller that found that New York misses out on $5 million in annual income that could be earned by allowing sustainable logging.

He also called for an increased reliance on the department's website for across-the-board permitting and fee collection, which could free up staff for other activities and centralize much of DEC's administrative activities.

At present, only state residents who are buying a hunting or fishing license for the first time can do so online.

Sayward said that more emphasis should be placed on increasing fee collection for out-of-state residents.

The DEC website receives 25,000 hits per day.

Grannis said that the DEC receives significantly more Freedom of Information requests than the typical state agency, and responding to them has become very costly.

"There is an incredible amount of interest in what we do - Some of it comes from private citizens, some of it comes from business interests," Grannis said, noting they can be complicated and burdensome. "We are obligated to respond to these FOIL requests."

He said DEC handles five times more FOIL requests than any other state agency, many of which are from private corporations and individuals involved in lawsuits seeking information for their own benefit.

Like the permitting and fee payments, he said that there needs to be an increased focus on making information available to the public without requiring significant staff labor.

Last year, hunting and fishing licenses significantly increased, as did snowmobile registration fees.

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