Critters Cry for Help as New York Agency Shutters Their Barn

A turkey hen in a pen in Wappingers Falls, NY. The fowl could be among the homeless when the DEC closes down operations on May 31. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Stuffed animals stare from the walls of the stately Verplanck manor house in Wappingers Falls, New York. It’s an eerie effect.

“We didn’t actually kill the animals ourselves,” explains Reba Laks, director of the Stony Kill Farm Environmental Education Center here, where taxidermy has useful teaching applications. “Most of them were local roadkill.”

The living creatures at Stony Kill also have problems. The barn that houses a small group of farm animals is about to be closed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Citing a budget crunch, the department is ending its operations here for the time being. There’s no plan to care for the barnyard animals beyond May 31.

The closing is part of an epidemic. The Department of Environmental Conservation announced it was also shutting seven campgrounds and two day-use sites in New York State -- from Devil’s Tombstone in the Catskills to Tioga Point in the Adirondacks.

In addition, last week State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash confirmed that 55 parks and historic sites were to be shuttered this year, with an additional 24 parks to be cut back -- a move to save some $6 million as various agencies address a $9 billion state budget gap.

The savings from the DEC plans are even smaller than the commission’s moves. By closing Stony Kill’s farm and education center, for example, The Department of Environmental Conservation saves all of $37,000, most of that in electricity and fuel bills. It will save an additional $13,500 on the seasonal position it would have filled or the summer. The agency’s closings will save a total of $264,000, far less than the $32 million it’s supposed to trim this fiscal year.

Stony Kill’s manor house and barn, along with about three-quarters of the 1,000-acre property here, were donated to the state by the Verplanck family in 1942. Specifically, it was given to the State University of New York at Farmingdale as an agricultural learning experience. In 1973, the Department of Environmental Conservation turned it into an environmental education center.

Cows With Calves

Today it is a beautiful farm, with fields of alfalfa and corn, smaller plots of community gardens and a greenhouse. The 1860 Dutch-style barn is home to four cows with calves, a couple of pigs, a small flock of sheep, a rooster with an impressive harem, and an unaffiliated turkey hen.

I can understand why this place has been a staple of school fieldtrips for years; even New York City kids make the 90-minute trip to get here.

Laks starts to tell me about a summer program and then catches herself. “I keep forgetting what’s about to happen,” she says. She hopes the closing will be temporary and the farm can resume next year. She, along with eight other part- and full-time staff, will be relocated to another Department of Environmental Conservation site or office.

She is counting on the largess of volunteers and the actual owners of the animals, the Stony Kill Farm Foundation, to keep the creatures healthy and happy.

‘We Are Not Farmers’

Foundation staffers are aghast at the idea of having to care for the farm and animals themselves.

“We are not farmers,” says president Tony Riccobono. “Our goal is to keep the center open. Failing that, we want to at least keep the barn open with the animals.”

Last week, the foundation’s directors cited their concerns in a letter to its members and other concerned citizens:

“The reality is that on August 4, 1942, a deed was issued by James De Lancey and Evelina Verplanck, and John Bayard Rodgers and Susan Van Wyck Verplanck to the NYS Department of Education, that stated that Stony Kill ‘shall be forever dedicated to and used exclusively for agricultural purposes.’ The State of New York is legally bound by this document and must uphold the restrictions placed on this deed.”

The letter included the names and phone numbers of everyone from Wappinger town supervisor Chris Colsey to Governor David Paterson and every relevant state assemblyman.

The Department of Environmental Conservation believes the community gardens on the grounds can satisfy the agriculture clause in the lease, but Riccobono believes the gardens are too small a portion of the property to meet the stipulation.

Cheap Entertainment

Ultimately, reducing access to the outdoors for children and adults must be counted as a uniquely shortsighted and also elitist attack on those who do not have the means to establish their private petting zoos or travel the world to bike and hike. Minnewaska State Park, a magnet for rock climbers in the New Paltz area of the state, was also on a closing list, without any thought it seems to its contribution to the local economy.

At Stony Kill, the state certainly gets a lot of value for its meager investment.

For the next month and a half, it will be business as usual at Stony Kill, with its schedule of guided nature walks, after-school programs, and of course an Earth Day celebration (to be held a few days late, on April 25). A “Save Stony Kill” Facebook page has been set up where you can write to local policymakers, sign a petition or commiserate with other fans of the country farm.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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