A new legislative commission will study the increasing demands on Maryland state parks starting next month.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) announced the creation of the State Park Investment Commission on Friday, which will make recommendations on the need for new parks in “recreational deserts” and whether existing parks are accessible to certain populations such as those who do not have a car or are low-income.
“Public outdoor spaces are essential to Marylanders’ emotional, mental, and physical health and bring people of all walks together,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Geographic location, race, or income should not limit a person’s ability to enjoy these benefits, and it is critical that we expand these public spaces that protect Maryland’s rich natural resources.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants and gyms and forced people inside to self-quarantine and abandon travel plans, outdoor recreational spaces like state parks became one of the few respites left. Unprecedented crowds visited Maryland parks during the pandemic, reaching a peak of more than 21 million visitors across 75 state parks in 2020.
In 2020, rangers had to close 14 State Parks 292 times, which was triple the amount of times they had to turn away visitors in 2019, according to Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources. This year, state parks closed 155 times because they reached capacity.
Although visitation has decreased this year compared to last year, a significantly higher amount of people go to State Parks than in pre-pandemic times, Bortz continued.
During the Fourth of July weekend, around a dozen state parks had to turn residents away because they had reached their capacity, lawmakers said. Some parks have turned to reservations to manage big crowds, such as Rocks State Park in Harford County, which requires reservations on weekends and holidays through Labor Day.
Despite temporary closures, some parks within the National Park Service have similarly experienced a surge in visitation numbers, which has led to an increase in litter on some trails. Bortz said the increase in visitors can also lead to trail damage and parking issues.
In the past three years, two new state parks were created — Bohemia River in Cecil County and Wolf Den Run in Garrett County, Bortz said.
“The pandemic has highlighted now, more than ever, the importance of high quality, available, outdoor recreational opportunities for all Marylanders,” Jones said in a statement. “We must invest fully in open space that is highly accessible and offers a variety of recreational options for our residents to enjoy.
The Department of Natural Resources plans to work with a Park Equity Tool developed by the University of Maryland School of Public Health, which maps out communities that are in need of more park space and shows which parks are underutilized. However, DNR is currently not using the tool, Bortz said.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) will chair the commission.
“At a time when our citizens most needed a healthy outdoor environment, they were often me with a ‘Park Closed’ sign,” Glendening said in a statement. “This is an opportunity to advance some of our most important goals and policies: equity, greening and health. I am pleased to work with my fellow Marylanders, members of the General Assembly and the hard-working men and women of the park system as we move to parks that are more equitable, help our citizens be healthier, and reduce the extremes of climate change.”
Members of the new commission include House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery), Dels. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City), Mark Chang (D-Anne Arundel) and Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore), and Sens. George Edwards (R-Garrett), Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s) and Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery), chair of the Senate Capital Budget Subcommittee.