Thursday, January 28, 2021

Dramatic Increase In Visitors Caused Strains On Already Understaffed, Underfunded State Parks, Forests And Facilities At DCNR

On January 27, the Directors of DCNR’s Bureaus of State Parks and Forestry provided the
Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council with an overview of how the dramatic increase in visitors seeking refuge from the COVID pandemic caused significant strains on already understaffed state parks and forests and facilities needing $1 billion worth of maintenance.

DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn readily agreed when they called the efforts of permanent and seasonal staff to provide the crush of visitors with safe recreational experiences-- “heroic.”

John Hallas, Director of the Bureau of State Parks, said park attendance increased a million visitors a month in 2020, compared to 2019, resulting in a total of 46.7 million visitors-- a 26.6 percent increase.

Ellen Shultzabarger, State Forester and Director of the Bureau of Forestry, said while state forests provide a “dispersed low density” outdoor recreation experience that isn’t easily quantified, they experienced an almost 30 percent increase in camping and parking lots and trail access points were continuously filled..

Both Hallas and Shultzabarger said visitors levels are still running ahead of this time last year as people seek outdoor recreation experiences at state parks and forests.

Hallas described how the response of Bureau staff to the pandemic had to keep evolving across the state in Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks as conditions changed from the initial shutdown of parks last March, to a gradual reopening county by county, to the operating conditions we have today.

“We very quickly recognized starting in March an unusual and uncharacteristic [increase] in visitation numbers,” said Hallas.  “People [were] coming in droves, something we’ve never seen before.  [It] wasn’t exclusive to the state, it was happening on all public lands globally.”

In the beginning, Hallas said, there were procurement challenges with things like ordering 8,500 bottles of hand sanitizers, getting disinfectants, gloves and 15,000 face coverings to keep staff and visitors safe.

Guidance and training for staff and visitor safety information had to be developed and disseminated to the public so everyone knew what was expected of them.

Hallas said state park overnight accommodations saw a 42.5 percent increase in 2020, compared to 2019.

“What we heard from the field was weekends are now like holidays, and weekdays are now like weekends, and the holidays are just simply crushing,” said Hallas. 

He noted how DCNR had to close some facilities almost daily, like Beltzville State Park in Carbon County, because the number of visitors rapidly exceeded park capacity. He said 75 special details by park rangers provided enforcement support at locations across the state experiencing capacity and crowding issues.

“This posed an immense challenge for our enforcement staff, on top of other concerns resulting from civil unrest in the country,” said Hallas.  “I'm proud to report our law enforcement staff remained completely professional and a high degree of professionalism was displayed during the summer of extraordinary challenges that they were presented with.” 

Many first-time visitors to the parks brought their own challenges.

“New visitors invariably caused everything from search and rescues to an increase in slips, trips and falls and lots of medical emergencies,” said Hallas.

“Crowds overwhelmed park resources and infrastructure funds, to be honest,” said Hallas.  “We had to deal with issues in real time installing extra dumpsters and trash receptacles, litter at times overflowed and trash was scattered throughout the use areas.”

“Our very dedicated park staff and conservation volunteers dedicated time each and every day during peak season just to remove trash in preparation for the next day’s activities.”

“[Providing] education and interpretation programs is one of the big challenges when we weren’t capable of providing in-person programming,” said Hallas.  “I’m happy to report programming staff did an extraordinary job of standing up remote learning opportunities for the public and school districts.”

He noted the state parks have been ”historically challenged operationally with lower than optimal professional staffing levels to meet the ever-growing park visitation and public demand for services.”

Going forward, he said, “With increased visitation, both day use and overnight, comes increased costs on our system.  Having sufficient infrastructure to meet the public demand while protecting the resource is the ever present tension.”

“How we can actually adequately meet the public demands moving forward will be critical and a question that we need to answer,” he added.

“State parks was only able to meet the mission in 2020 and now beyond because of the exemplary and talented and highly committed professional staff serving the public and stewarding the resources every day,” said Hallas.  “Their collective work has been simply extraordinary and in many instances, I’d say heroic.”

Ellen Shultzabarger, Director of the Bureau of Forestry, echoed Hallas’ thanks to the work of dedicated DCNR staff by saying “it was as if they didn’t really skip a beat, they just got right to work and have continued throughout this entire pandemic.  They are just really excellent public servants.”

She said while DCNR’s 2.2 million acres of forest land in over 20 forest districts provide a low density recreation experience, it does include a variety of recreational opportunities from hiking, to camping, snowmobiling and ATV riding, equestrian, biking and scenic driving.

Shultzabarger said parking lots were always full and facilities like the Seven Tubs Recreation Area in Luzerne County and many state forest trails saw extremely heavy use.

“We did have, of course, more incidents that resulted in arrests and citations,” said Shultzabarger. “And vandalism was something that really was up and we saw some major impacts in some areas.”

There were 971 more incidents state forest rangers had to respond to with visitors, 30 more arrests, 703 more citations issued and a 56 percent increase in vandalism.

“We were very concerned about the graffiti that was occurring, but we were able to pull together and bring in volunteers to safely work to bring [areas] back to what it looked like before,” said Shultzabarger.

She pointed to the same issues of managing traffic, finding places for people to park safely, putting up better signage to guide people and an increase in trash and illegal dumping, like in state parks.

Going forward, Shultzabarger said, Forestry is looking at feedback from staff, stakeholders and the public to see how they can better deal with the increase in visitors to state forests, while meeting their own stewardship goals.

“We need to ensure that we’re maintaining that wild character, low-density dispersed recreation that many of the areas of the state forests provide, and that really, you can only find in those core continuous blocks of forests,” said Shultzabarger.

“So, we need to make sure that we maintain that. But we also need to meet what folks are coming out and looking for in the forest,” she added.  “We need to ensure that we are adequately providing those resources for those high-use areas, like rail trails, or key attractions around water, or near population centers. So, we're going through the whole system and planning it out.”

She said she hopes people recreating in state forests will not only come to appreciate trees and forestry more, but also become stewards of the forests.

“What really is important is connecting to people [and] connecting to the health and well-being and all those positive effects [of forests],” said Shultzabarger. 

Click Here for a copy of their PPT presentations.

Visit DCNR’s Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council webpage to learn more about the Council.

  For more information on state parks and forests and recreation in Pennsylvania, visit DCNR’s website, Click Here to sign up for the Resource newsletter, Visit the Good Natured DCNR Blog,  Click Here for upcoming events, Click Here to hook up with DCNR on other social media-- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

Related Articles:

-- New Poll: 86% Say Parks, Trails, Outdoors Are Essential To Their Physical, Mental Health During Pandemic; State Parks Saw 26.6% Increase In Visitors

-- DCNR Economic Impact Spotlight: State Parks & Forests Are Economic Drivers In Rural Pennsylvania

-- Every $1 Invested In Local Conservation Thru Keystone Recreation Fund Returns $7 In Economic Value 

-- COVID-19 Made Open Spaces, Outdoor Recreation More Essential; 9 Out Of 10 Pennsylvanians Support Protecting Open Space

-- New Poll: 86% Say Parks, Trails, Outdoors Are Essential To Their Physical, Mental Health During Pandemic; State Parks Saw 26.6% Increase In Visitors 

-- 90% Of PA Voters Want Senate, House To Provide More Funding For Critical Environmental, Conservation Programs; That Didn’t Happen In 2020

-- PA Parks & Forests Foundation Urges Lawmakers To Oppose Freeze On Recreation, Conservation Funding Addressing Imminent Health Threats, Help Economy Recover

-- Learn More About $1 Billion State Parks, Forests Maintenance, Infrastructure Backlog At New Website; Then Take Action

[Posted: January 28, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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