A hiker follows a trail through Blue Knob State Park.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
Here’s the quandary.
Pennsylvania’s state park system is 27 percent larger than it was 40 years ago. There were 86 state parks encompassing 214,000 acres in 1970. In 2018 there were 121 encompassing 295,000 acres.
Visitation is up, too. Parks attracted 29 million people in 1970. In 2018 that was 39 million.
Yet over that same time period, the number of people minding the store, so to speak, declined. Funding for the bureau of state parks hasn’t always kept pace with the economy and, as a result, it employs fewer people now than four decades ago.
The bureau calls that a “systemic problem.”
“It has become increasingly difficult to manage the system in a way that provides an enjoyable and safe experience for all visitors, while also properly caring for the recreational, natural, and cultural resources that attract visitors to the parks,” reads a report on park operations.
That’s a challenge, obviously.
Park officials are seeking for the public’s help in taking it on.
Over the past two years it asked Pennsylvanians to take a survey on the future of state parks. More than 10,000 did.
The parks bureau recently released the preliminary report developed from the results. Called “Penn’s Parks for All,” it will – when adopted in its final version in summer 2020 – direct park priorities over the next 25 years.
The report covers a wide variety of topics. The issue of funding, though, is the central one.
When the bureau of state parks did its last strategic plan 25 years ago, it identified a $100 million backlog in unfunded maintenance and infrastructure needs. That’s grown to more than $500 million since, it said.
“The condition of state park facilities is deteriorating, with some facilities being shuttered, and some recreation activities no longer available – while demand for park use is higher than ever before,” Penn’s Parks for All reads.
Most people, the survey found, agree state parks should be better funded. Eighty-two percent support the notion of allocating more state taxes to pay for park maintenance and rehabilitation.
There’s little support for charging park admittance fees, though.
Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents rejected that, compared to 27 percent supporting. Most – 59 percent – likewise oppose leasing state park facilities to private entities or even nonprofits.
The report recommends addressing the maintenance backlog by cutting costs where possible, such as demolishing buildings neither historic nor essential to park operations. It suggests cutting energy costs, as well.
On the revenue side, it recommends pursuing state and federal grants and a possible increase in state funding.
Beyond that, the report offers up potential “courses of action.” At least some are reflective of a changing world, where ethnic diversity, levels of outdoor experience and technology are sparking sometimes conflicting demands.
For example, some park users want quieter campgrounds with more dark skies, meaning less lighting and even perhaps fewer campfires. Others want facilities capable of handling ever-larger recreational vehicles. Some want better WiFi and charging stations for electric vehicles. Others want bike trails linking parks and paddle-in-only camping.
Almost all, the surveys suggest, want to see parks remain places for escaping into nature.
But even that’s becoming harder to guarantee.
According to Penn’s Parks for All, overcrowding is a growing problem. Some state parks, for example – most notably those near urban centers – are at capacity on weekends by noon. When overflow crowds still pour in, that taxes everything from parking lots to sewage treatment facilities, the report said.
Such problems are only exacerbated by growing requests to use state parks for special events, it added.
“With population growth in major metropolitan areas of the state, these stressful occurrences will only become more frequent in the years ahead unless changes are made,” the report noted.
The report’s recommendations for dealing with that and other issues are not final.
The public can comment on the draft version of Penn’s Parks for All through Dec. 31 online here. Written comments can be sent to: PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Bureau of State Parks’ Planning Section, PO Box 8551, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8551.
The bureau plans to schedule public meetings to accept comment around the state this fall as well.
Other recommended changes to Pennsylvania state parks
The Penn’s Parks for All report outlines a number of recommendations on how state parks might better serve the public going forward.
Here’s a look at a few of them.
- Evaluate the concession operations at state parks and implement improvements where possible. One example might be eliminating a concession stand and replacing it with a parking lot capable of handling a variety of food trucks.
- Develop a marketing campaign to attract “diverse, new and inexperienced outdoor recreational users” to state parks.
- Build ponds, wetlands, rain gardens, bioswales, and other “landscape elements” to handle stormwater running off parking lots, roads and buildings.
- Increase staffing by 15 percent to meet “legislative mandate and constitutional trustee responsibilities.”
- Develop a night sky management program to conserve the night sky in state parks and enhance night sky viewing across the commonwealth.
- Enhance camping opportunities by 2030. Changes could include increasing the number of pet-friendly, full-service and electric-only campsites and the number of large, multi-family campsites; adding 100 rental cabins; increasing the number of non-electric, walk-in sites; explore opportunities for “boat-in” waterfront camping; and institute pilot projects for new kinds of camping, such as treehouses.
- Improve each park’s trail system to ensure they are sustainable “for those seeking healthy, quiet, and natural experiences. Also, develop in every park one trail loop that is accessible to all people.
- Enhance water-based recreational offerings by developing “innovative” facilities consistent with park aesthetics. An example would be developing a water/splash play area with the look of boulders and rock ledges.
- Develop accessible canoe and kayak launch sites for people with all abilities on all major recreational lakes within state parks.
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