Ward Pound Ridge holds onto curator, staves off budget cuts

Now that the tumultuous Westchester County budget season has ended, the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation community is breathing a sigh of relief as it has dodged another year of severe cuts that would have put a number of programs and positions on the chopping block, including park curators and the deer management program.

“The economy and the budget seem to go hand in hand,” said Peter Tartaglia, deputy commissioner of the Westchester County Parks Department. “As a county we are holding steady with the tax levy for taxpayers. We know when we have a budget number we are projected to come in at it is up to the department of parks to recommend cuts.”

Mr. Tartaglia emphasized that all cuts made are based on seniority and do not reflect on performance. This applies directly to Dan Aitchison, a curator at Ward Pound Ridge, he said.

For two consecutive years Mr. Aitchison, along with fellow curators and Parks Department staff, has narrowly missed becoming a budget casualty. Mr. Aitchison is credited as the driving force behind the successful deer management program at Ward Pound Ridge, and while not wedded, the program would suffer from his absence, Mr. Tartaglia said.

“We are trying to balance a department that has 50 facilities, 18,000 acres of parkland and everything from conservation, parks and recreation to golf courses,” Mr. Tartaglia said. “No cut is easy but we will always live within our budget and anytime we have to let a person go it is unfortunate.”

Initially the Parks Department was slated to lose 22 positions department-wide, five of which were vacancies. But after the county budget was paddled back and forth between the county executive and legislators receiving pseudo bipartisan approval (only two Democrats participated), it resulted in 15 staff cuts throughout the Parks Department.

And while all curator positions were restored, including Mr. Aitchison’s, throughout the department 10 employees lost their jobs and five vacancies will remain so.

“To me it is particularly cynical,” said Westchester County Legislator Peter Harckham, whose district includes Lewisboro and Katonah. “The county executive was up there two months ago touting the 75th anniversary of the Trailside Museum, then two months later he sends a budget that eliminates the curator. At all three public hearings people came out to speak about Dan and the job he has done and professionalism in managing that program.”

Protecting the reservation

“I’m hoping after two years in a row this [the Parks Department] will be recognized as something that does not belong on the chopping block,” said Tom Cohn, member of the board of directors for the Friends of Trailside Museum and Ward Pound Ridge organization. “It provides too much benefit to the community. We have a tremendous amount of programs throughout the year, we bring in literally hundreds of families, Boy Scouts come in very large numbers, flower clubs, walking clubs, horseback riding, they all take advantage of the park. The county is well aware of the success of the Trailside Museum and others.”

Mr. Cohn touts the deer management program as being a successful and vital program in maintaining the park’s sensitive biodiversity, with research already showing the positive effects of reducing the amount of grazing the deer exact on the reservation.

“The goal of a park is not to keep things as they are,” he said. “You have to allow for and embrace the natural changes as trees grow and reach maturity. What people don’t realize about our beautiful woodlands is we are not getting the next generation of trees that are working their ways up from the floor. That will create a situation that interrupts the natural progression.”

The deer are largely responsible for nibbling away the young vegetation that will become the trees of the future, he said.

Managing the deer

During the winter season, Ward Pound Ridge, Sal J. Prezioso Mountain Lakes Park in North Salem, Muscoot Farm in Katonah, and Lasdon Park and Arboretum in Somers are the only four locations where deer bow-hunting is permitted by the Parks Department. Under the management of Mr. Aitchison, the tightly organized program has seen a significant decrease in the amount of damage deer herds have caused to the park and surrounding residential properties, Mr. Tartaglia said.

“Dan is involved from the beginning,” Mr. Tartaglia said. “From registration to the last day, he is at the parks all the time, involved in all of our animal management programs such as geese, beaver. We have seen a great improvement; you can tell by vegetation and how much hasn’t been destroyed and areas where you can actually see where some of it is growing back.”

The program runs from October through December and requires licensed bow hunters to follow a number of guidelines, in addition to passing a proficiency test.

The guidelines specify a number of safety and courtesy procedures to limit the impact of hunters on the park and non-hunting visitors while allowing them to enjoyably curtail the deer population. This ranges from proper etiquette as ambassadors of the park to instructions on how to properly dispose of gut piles and ways to donate excess meat.

The program also features the Earn-a-Buck guideline, which specifies that hunters must harvest an antlerless deer before harvesting a buck. Reducing the number of female deer is a key part of the program’s strategy to reduce the deer population, according to the guidelines.

This year the program culled 101 deer throughout Westchester County parks, 55 of them from Ward Pound Ridge.

It is fitting that more than half of this year’s culled deer came from Ward Pound Ridge, Mr. Tartaglia said, as it has the largest deer population of the four huntable parks.

The deer management program is a vital tool for maintaining the careful balance of the park’s ecosystem, Mr. Tartaglia said. Without natural predators to keep the deer population in check, the park’s ecosystem requires human maintenance — a curator. Without a dedicated caretaker, the ecosystem could fall into disarray over time as invasive plants take over where deer have stripped the vegetation. For this reason it was not a guarantee the deer management program would be eliminated if Mr. Aitchison’s position had been cut from the budget, he said.

Budget costs

The cost for Parks Department employees averages a little bit less than the average county employee, Mr. Tartaglia said.

But with an additional 40% of that salary attributed to mandated fringe health care benefits, the cost for employees is rising each year, he said.

There had been suggestions that the salaried positions could be replaced with hourly employees, Mr. Harckham said, but that would not have been sufficient.

“The budget was wrong for a lot of reasons,” he said. “It is a very complex biodiversity management program. You need someone highly trained who can work with the hunters and understand the park. You are not going to get that out of an hourly employee.”

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