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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Against the backdrop of a relentlessly gray sky, on Feb. 26 Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar stood in Battery Park and delivered some grim news about Liberty and Ellis Islands. Both have been closed since Superstorm Sandy blew through on Oct. 29, 2012.
Salazar had just spent around 90 minutes on Liberty Island. “What I found is that there’s a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done,” he said. “The piers have to be replaced, the walkways around the statue have to be fixed and importantly, security and security screening all need to be addressed.”
He said that until a decision is made about where security screening will take place, no decision, or even tentative announcement could be made about when the islands will reopen to the public. He did say, however, that Liberty Island might be able to open before Ellis Island.
The closures have cost Statue Cruises and other concessionaires that service the islands 300 jobs, Salazar said. In addition, New York City has lost tourism revenue.
Previously, screening was done in Battery Park in a tent that many Downtowners criticized for blocking harbor views. It was damaged by Sandy and will be removed in March. The National Park Service has proposed moving security screening to Ellis Island, however the N.Y.P.D. remains adamant that screening should take place before visitors board the ferry.
Salazar said that a decision would be made in consultation with the United States park police, Jonathan B. Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, the N.Y.P.D. and the Mayor’s Office.
He also said that the sequester mandated by Congress “is creating havoc for us across the entire system of the Department of the Interior.”
Because of budget restrictions, he said that even after Liberty and Ellis Islands reopen, they may have to go to a five-day-a-week schedule.
“We’ll have to furlough employees, we’ll have to keep from hiring the many seasonal [workers] who help us maintain our parks,” he said. “[The sequester] means a hiring freeze where we have many vacancies as we do here at Liberty Island.”
The sequester could also affect the timeline of repairs to Liberty and Ellis Islands, Salazar said. Contracts for this and other Department of the Interior work have to be processed by a facility in Denver, Colorado, which handles thousands of contracts a year. Cutting staff at that service center will slow down the processing of contracts, which are needed in order to move forward with the docks and with the security measures.
“The sequester is a mechanism that makes no sense,” Salazar said. It will impact all of the national parks as well as all of the 560 units of the national wildlife refuge system, some of which may have to be closed. If they do stay open, it could be with reduced services.
“At the end of the day, [this] has a huge impact on tourism and outdoor recreation,” Salazar said. “We estimate that around 6 and a half million jobs come from outdoor recreation alone.”
Salazar is slated to step down from the Department of the Interior at the end of March. Should she be confirmed by the Senate, his proposed successor, Sally Jewell, will have to deal with Sandy cleanup and with the sequester fall out.