Forecaster Forum: Portland can be the gateway to green Maine

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Mounting incidents of incivility throughout Portland’s parks threaten to undermine our “life’s good here” brand.

This could be mitigated if the city budget supported at least one year-round park ranger. It could also mark a new path toward sustainable economic growth rooted in physical and public health.

The city currently employs four seasonal rangers during the highest outdoor use in the spring and summer, when people frequent what is Maine’s largest municipal park system. These officers police our urban green spaces, not our streets. This means a Portland ranger’s last resort involves issuing citations and informing police of lawlessness.

As park stewards, the rangers’ primary responsibility is educating the public on the value of Portland’s natural world. They educate us to support our green spaces. Rangers offer invaluable and equitable ways for Portlanders and their children to experience our parks’ contributions to quality of life. They are an economic incentive for those wanting to live in a city buttressed by environmentally friendly common spaces.

But without at least one permanent year-round ranger patrolling Portland’s parks, we have created problems of non-compliance. This bubble of failures to abide by park civil codes has been expanding since the 2008 economic downturn. It came after the city changed its four permanent rangers to four temporary seasonal monitors of  our 40 parks with approximately 500 acres of park space, 250 acres of cemetery space, and 40 miles of trails.

We are in the sixth year of having no ranger oversight of our green spaces for six months each year. With that has come growing law-breaking, especially in the city’s most remote green places. It is akin to having police officers watch Portland streets only during the spring and summer. But people on our urban streets have a voice in that matter; the nature of our parks is voiceless.

The chorus of complaints is growing over problems like unleashed pets, homeless nesting, drugs, drinking, smoking, vandalism, littering and syringes. Ranger absences are allowing residents to ignore or violate park ordinances.

As a park commissioner, I have witnessed these violations at the historic Eastern Cemetery, Deering Oaks Park Rose Circle, Capisic Pond, Fore River Park Sanctuary, Riverside Golf Course, Back Cove, and the Eastern and Western Promenades. Last April, a fire was set in the forested acres of Evergreen Cemetery. It took nearly half of Portland’s Fire Department to put out the blaze.

Having one permanent, year-round, ranger replace one temporary seasonal ranger at a cost of $35,000 will positively change things. It will increase the potential for the city’s parks to become a tourist gateway in a state, which we proudly boast, has more rivers, streams and lakes than any other in the nation.

As a 30-year business executive, I view rangers as investments in a growing green economy. It was only a matter of time before investors linked East End Beach and the Eastern Promenade in ways that transformed Munjoy Hill from a declining neighborhood to a leading economic example of Portland’s quality of life. Year-round rangers can enhance that quality and generate more revenue, involving, for example, more fees for boat launches and dog licenses.

Rangers both protect and create stewardship opportunities in places that were once epicenters of pollution: Back Cove and the Presumpscot River. These green niches have captivated residential and business growth supportive of public health and “friends of” park environments.

For America’s emerging mobile and creative workforce, ranger-supported quality-of-life work also offers possibilities for emerging environmental-oriented capital assets and careers. Parks make our cities sustainable, livable and vibrant. There is no reason why Lincoln and Deering Oaks Parks cannot become natural tourist destinations and further confirmation that “yes, life’s good here.”

This will require increased stewardship and public eyes on Portland’s green jewels. Let’s start by returning rangers as permanent fixtures in our parks.

What happens going forward is in the hands of the City Council. With this one small step, councilors can make a major difference for Maine’s largest city. A move that can set the pace for greater global interest in our Pine Tree State’s green world.

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Ralph C. Carmona of Portland is a member of the Portland Parks Commission and the Portland Chamber of Commerce Economic Development and Civic Affairs Committee. He is also on the board of directors of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, and is an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.