Park Commission Sets Focus on Handling More Visitors, Removing Barriers to Access, and Figuring out Funding

Swallow Falls State Park near Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. Photo by Angela Breck.

Handling more visitors. Removing barriers to park access. Clearing maintenance backlogs. Alleviating low staffing and irregular funding. Coping with climate change.

Those are the key areas where the Maryland State Park Investment Commission will focus its work, after an initial round of hearings that included park rangers, advocates and environmental experts. 

“With the state’s budgetary surplus and the prospect of a large stimulus of federal money, we have the opportunity…to reshape the park system and become a national model of accessibility and sustainability,” former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, chair of the State Park Investment Commission, told its members Tuesday.

In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state parks saw a 45% increase in visitors compared to 2019. Many parks hit capacity and, altogether, turned away visitors 292 times. 

Natalia Buta, chair of the department of Kinesiology and Recreation at Frostburg State University, told the commission that she thinks state park closures were triggered because visitor parking lots were full. 

But it is not clear how park capacity numbers were determined — whether simply by the number of parking spaces available or if additional data was used to determine that number, Buta said. She encouraged a more in depth analysis to identify each state park’s real capacity limit. 

The state park system should develop new technologies to track real time visitation numbers, said Jessica Turner, executive director of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. With that information available, visitors could “self-select out of experiences” if they don’t want to be in an overcrowded area because of COVID-19 or could plan to park somewhere else if the lot is full, she continued. 

Most of the state parks’ infrastructure is over 40 years old and there is a critical maintenance backlog, with an estimated cost of about $63 million, for 551 projects that range from bathroom renovations to road repairs, according to Jeremy D. Baker of the Department of Legislative Services. 

Most state park funding comes from Program Open Space, which is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Through a share of the state transfer tax on real estate, that program provides financial assistance to local governments to support recreational land and open space areas. 

But between 2002 and 2018, around $1.4 billion was diverted from Program Open Space to the state’s general fund for other uses and $600 million of that has not been repaid, according to Andrew Gray of the Department of Legislative Services. Paying $600 million back to the Program Open Space would be a “significant burden to the state,” he said. 

Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a member of the commission, asked if money from Program Open Space could be used to address some of the critical maintenance backlog.

Joel Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Conservancy, said that funds in the program are intended to be used for protecting land and creating new park space, not to fix maintenance issues.

“I just know in the past and our community, when this has been brought up, there is a very strong response to using land acquisition money instead for maintenance projects,” Dunn said. 

Even if some program funds were used to address critical maintenance backlogs, it is not sound policy to use funds that fluctuate with the economy to pay for state park maintenance and staff, Dunn added. 

Governors in Wyoming, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire are allocating federal stimulus money for state parks, Turner said. 

Last month, Hogan announced a new Office of Outdoor Recreation, within DNR, to enhance recreation opportunities and stimulate economic benefits. Currently, 18 states have such an office, according to Turner. 

Del. Regina Boyce (D-Baltimore) asked how the Office of Outdoor Recreation would fit into recommendations that the commission plans to make. Glendening said he is open to a presentation by the office and is eager to hear the governor’s ideas. 

Most think that revenues increase as park attendance increases or that “the solution is kind of baked into the problem,” but this is not true, said Jordan Smith, director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University, which researches management of state parks across the nation.

Smith said that state legislatures do not allocate funding in proportion to park attendance, which means the quality of outdoor recreation opportunities decline when state parks are limited to the same amount of operating dollars to spend on more visitors.

Currently, Maryland sets aside a tenth of 1% of the state’s budget to the management of state park systems and 35 states spend more than Maryland does on their state parks, Smith said.

Increasing park fees could raise revenue but would not help achieve equitable access to state parks, he said. State partnerships with nonprofit or private industries to provide park services could also help with state park management, he said. 

“I think we need to look at more privatization on some of this because I think that helps get things maintained and operated and less expensive for the state,” said Sen. George Edwards (R-Garrett), a member of the commission. He also added that he thinks some of the money from Program Open Space should go into some maintenance backlog projects. 

Outdoor recreation funding also stimulates rural economies because technology and pharmaceutical companies like to locate their businesses in places with recreation resources to help retain a talented workforce, Turner said.

For instance, West Virginia has a $25 million grant program to bring people from the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia area who can work remotely near parks that are not as crowded and easier to access than those in more urban areas, she continued.   

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