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Feature: A Legacy You Can Take Pride In Continuing - 125 Years Of State Parks & Forests

By PA Parks & Forests Foundation, Spring Penn's Stewards 

Imagine Pennsylvania depleted of trees and wildlife. No hiking trails or bike paths. And polluted water and eroded shorelines. It’s certainly not a pretty picture or one we want to think about, but by the end of the 19th century’s industrial heyday, that was the direction the Commonwealth was headed.

Thankfully, our forefathers and mothers recognized the need to preserve land and invest in our parks and forests. As a result, we are fortunate to enjoy breathtaking landscapes, unsurpassed natural resources, and award-winning parks and forests.

It’s a legacy to be proud of continuing and one that was inspired by William Penn more than 300 years ago. The founder of Pennsylvania and a forward thinker, Penn understood the value that our forests provided and his obligation to protect them.

His early dedication to conservation paved the way for future leaders to invest in the betterment of the Commonwealth.

Today, Pennsylvania boasts 121 state parks encompassing nearly 300,000 acres and a nationally-recognized state forest system with 2.2 million-acres within 49 of the state’s 67 counties.

With the legacy of the state’s parks and forests now in our hands, it is up to us to sustain the level of investments and resource protection begun by past leaders and citizens, continuing a tradition that is so important to our heritage.

Pennsylvania Then and Now

To continue the legacy of conserving our state parks and forests, it’s important to remember where we started. As we’ve often said, looking back serves as a reminder to never take our natural resources for granted while inspiring us to plan for the future.

In the dawn of the 20th century, when the country was desperate for more of everything to fuel expansion, Pennsylvanians cut, mined, quarried, hunted, fished, and harvested, leaving in their wake unbelievable devastation.

Polluted air and waterways, denuded forests, impoverished soils, extinct and disappearing plant and animal life motivated citizens to embrace an interest in conservation that they believed would restore the state’s environmental health.

It wasn’t always easy, but through decades of hard work, environmental stewardship and quality management, Pennsylvania is a shining example of how valuable protected land can be.

In fact, many now view our state parks and forests as essential features for healthy ecosystems and critical wildlife habitats, the protection of water resources, outdoor education and recreation, personal well-being, and overall health.

The Evolution of Land Protection and Infrastructure

As a reaction to the devastating losses experienced through the industrialization of the state, citizens began organizing – a movement that bore fruit in the creation of commissions, the push for restoration, and the slow recovery of not just our forests, but the species that depend on them.

A bill signed in 1893 formed the PA Forestry Commission, tasked with the control of forest fires and to establish a forest reserve system. The system began with the purchase of 7,500 acres in Clinton County to be used to “furnish timber, protect the water supply of Young Woman’s Creek, and provide recreation for citizens.”

Our first state park, Valley Forge, also established in 1893, recognized the importance of putting aside places of cultural and natural significance for the benefit of all; a recognition that we truly do live in a Commonwealth.

The founding mothers and fathers also acknowledged the health qualities of protecting these assets, not just clean water from reduced erosion, but access to fresh air and open spaces.

Joseph Rothrock, our first Forestry Commissioner, actually practiced medicine and spent much of his life outdoors because of its healing properties.  [Note: Maurice Goddard is considered the father of Pennsylvania’s modern state park system.]

Over the past 125 years, visionary leaders recognized the need to make investments to develop our system, from early acquisition of lands through tax sales (thus reducing the burden on local and county governments) to investments of infrastructure, leadership, and indeed the public, recognized and supported these investments.

Community organizations grew out of need, and assisted in the advancement of a system that become a fabric in the identity of the state and its residents. Indeed, our name says it all: Penn’s Woods, Pennsylvania.

How Funding is Changing Lives

From the creation of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund, to Projects 70 and 500, to Growing Greener I and II and the Keystone Fund, investments made a difference in the quality and experience that our parks and forests provided and continue to provide, while also protecting the natural assets we enjoy.

Today, every dollar invested in our state parks and forests brings multiple benefits to the communities that surround them.

In a 2012 study, for instance, the return on taxpayer investment in our state parks alone was estimated at nearly $12.41 for every $1 invested. With more than 41 million visitors to our state parks in 2016, that accounts for considerable economic stimulation and jobs created and/or retained.

Another study done in 2015, this time for the website, found that $6.9 billion in tourism industry sales in Pennsylvania were associated with recreation, making it the third most profitable industry in relation to tourism.

But the value of state parks and forests goes beyond economics. Several Pennsylvania State Park Visitor studies by Penn State University found that Pennsylvanians who visit state parks each year do so to have fun, reduce stress and anxiety, and connect to the outdoors. Not to mention the fact that it also helps them achieve healthy lifestyles.

In terms of environmental services, our state forests and parks provide numerous benefits to us via water treatment, air purification, groundwater recharge, erosion reduction, and capturing atmospheric carbon. Who doesn’t like clean water?

Ensuring Another 125 Years

It’s obvious that our state parks and forests are well loved and much appreciated, having provided generations of Pennsylvanians with some of their fondest memories.

But with that use comes significant wear and tear to the built and natural infrastructure, requiring frequent maintenance and upgrades to keep up with the demand and ensure that our state parks and forests remain well regarded in the public eye.

With the significant amount of buildings, roads, bridges, dams, and other structures within our state parks and state forests, routine maintenance is a daily task.

Water and sewer lines, as well as treatment facilities, need to be upgraded to meet new regulations, roofs worn by time need to be repaired or replaced, roads need to be resurfaced, campsites need to be mowed, and fences need to be mended or removed.

Much like a home to-do list, the removal of one project from the maintenance list at a state park or forest makes way for another project, and another, and another.

Like our foremothers and fathers, we all play a role in ensuring we present our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with the same opportunities we had for enjoying the outdoors. To hand them anything less would rob them of their legacy, and remove their rights under our state constitution.

How do you want to be involved? Does volunteerism interest you?

Are you interested in advocacy? Is there a project that you would like to support financially? A trail you want to hike? A skill you have to share? There is a role for everyone in continuing the legacy of conservation that IS our state parks and forests.

Be Part Of The 125th Anniversary

Throughout 2018 opportunities exist to engage in the 125th anniversary of our parks and forests.

While we are still building our activity list, we welcome your input. Email your ideas to and share your thoughts with PPFF.

Keep your eye on the PA Parks & Forests Foundation website and calendar for ways to get involved.

Conservation Heritage

To learn more about Pennsylvania’s environmental heritage, visit the PA Conservation Heritage website.

For more information on programs, initiatives and special events, visit the PA Parks & Forests Foundation website.  Click Here to sign up for regular updates from the Foundation,  Like them on Facebook or Follow them on TwitterClick Here to become a member of the Foundation.

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.

(Photo: 2016 People’s Choice Best In Show Winner, PPFF Photo Contest, Kyle Yates, Cook Forest State Park, Clarion County.)


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