Opinion: State Parks Study Has a Ready Resource in Maryland’s Program Open Space

Program Open Space
Muddy Creek Falls at Swallow Falls State Park near Oakland in Garrett County. Photo by Angela Breck.

By Charlotte Davis and Joel Dunn

The writers are, respectively, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council and president and CEO of Chesapeake Conservancy. They serve as co-chairs of the Partners for Open Space, a statewide coalition of environmental, agricultural, recreation and historic preservation organizations.

We write in response to “New Commission Will Study Md. State Parks As Visits Soared During Pandemic” [Maryland Matters, Aug. 7]. As Maryland residents and co-chairs of the Partners for Open Space, we applaud Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones for their leadership to establish a State Park Investment Commission, which will help to highlight and address equity, maintenance and capacity issues at Maryland state parks.

Maryland is fortunate to have a great number of wonderful state parks which allow Marylanders and visitors to enjoy our state’s beautiful natural resources, from the Appalachian Mountains and Deep Creek Lake State Park to suburban parks like Patapsco Valley State Park and Sandy Point State Park, to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and coast like Assateague State Park.

Maryland state parks protect and provide public access to our state’s natural wonders and scenic beauty, they offer the public a chance to explore nature and experience wildlife, and they provide open space for outdoor recreation which is good for public health and local economies.

Still, the massive increase in public demand for parks and open space has resulted in parks reaching visitor capacity more often, leaving many people and families stuck outside the park gate. The big and sustained increase in visitors also puts a strain on the park itself, including staff, facilities and trails, as well as on natural resources and wildlife.

Thanks to Gov. Larry Hogan and to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland state parks have been able to respond to the surge in visitors by implementing a reservation system and health safety measures.

In addition to capacity challenges, there are many communities in Maryland that do not have easy access to the Maryland state park system.

For example, in Baltimore, a car ride from city center into Patapsco Valley State Park might take 20 to 25 minutes, but that same trip by public transportation could easily take one hour or longer. Maryland’s state parks provide some of the best outdoor recreation experiences such as trail hiking or swimming. It is important that all communities, especially underserved communities, can better access these experiences and enjoy the great outdoors at its finest in Maryland. It is also important for improving public health outcomes, since exercising and recreating in the outdoors is proven to have many health benefits.

One solution is to create new state parks and, if possible and practical, to expand existing state parks. Fortunately, this park commission and Maryland legislators have a ready tool at their disposal, which is Maryland’s Program Open Space. Funded by the state’s real estate transfer tax, Program Open Space and related conservation programs like the Rural Legacy Area program and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation serve to balance development and land use change by directing transfer tax funds toward open space protection.

As Maryland’s population grows and development increases, so does Program Open Space which is used to create and expand state and local parks, preserve agricultural land and support local tourism through the Maryland Heritage Areas program. Maryland legislators should continue to fully fund Program Open Space so that the state park system and local park systems can grow and meet the increased public demand for open space.

Secondly, while creating more parks and enhancing access to parks is needed, Maryland must also ensure that park staff, facilities and experiences are welcoming and inclusive of the many and diverse communities that visit parks.

Maryland has already begun to address this need through programs like the Es Mi Parque program and through partnerships with communities and nonprofits. As the commission looks at shoring up resources for existing parks and creating new parks, we encourage the commission to engage a diverse set of stakeholders, including communities of color, to understand both park access and park experience needs.

The increase in public demand for parks and open space is a welcome and positive signal that more and more Marylanders are seeking to enjoy our state’s natural beauty and outdoor recreational experiences.

When people have the opportunity to experience nature, to hike on a trail, or try their hand at canoeing or fishing, they are very likely to become a better conservation steward for the environment. We look forward to the work of the State Park Investment Commission, which we hope will connect more people to Maryland’s parks and great outdoors and inspire future conservation leaders.