State, Regional, Local Outdoor Recreation ‘Through The Roof’ Across Pennsylvania
During a September 15 hearing, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee was told state, regional and local outdoor recreation was ‘through the roof’ across Pennsylvania as a result of the pandemic causing families to “rediscover” parks and outdoor recreation.
“Access to outdoor recreation is always important, but during the pandemic, there has been explosive growth in outdoor activities,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) who requested the Committee hearing. “The legislature needs to make sure that these programs are funded and supported, instead of being used as a political football. The mental and physical health benefits of the free, accessible public spaces throughout the Commonwealth are unmatched, and we need to preserve these spaces for all Pennsylvania residents.”
“We often hear the term ‘new normal.’ Well, the increased interest in outdoor recreation at Pennsylvania State Parks and local outdoor spaces is a positive new normal and one we should all embrace and support," said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh), Chair of the Committee.
State Park Use Up Nearly 23%
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn told the Committee that in July state parks had an increase of 1.49 million visitors-- 25.76 percent-- compared to July of last year and over all parks have seen a 22.86 percent increase in visitors totalling 27.73 million so far during the first seven months of the year.
“Campgrounds have been fully booked weeks in advance, and some parks have been so popular that they reach capacity by 10:00 a.m.
“DCNR has addressed overcrowding issues by adding staff where necessary and encouraging visitors to explore less-busy parks and forests. [Read more here.]
“Anyone can visit a state park for free, and DCNR believes it should stay that way to ensure that every Pennsylvanian can enjoy the benefits of spending time in nature regardless of their financial situation.
“Increased outdoor recreation is boosting Pennsylvania’s economy, and will be crucial to the state’s financial recovery.
“Annually, outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania generates $29 billion in consumer spending and $1.9 billion in tax revenue while directly supporting 251,000 jobs.
“A 2012 Penn State study found that the nearly 40 million annual state park visitors generate more than $1 billion in economic activity each year, directly supporting 9,435 jobs and spending over $628 million directly at local shops, outfitters, restaurants, and other businesses that need support now more than ever.
“Overall, every $1 invested in state parks returns $12.41 of value-added income to the commonwealth.
“Investments in our conservation and recreation resources are essential to meet the growing demand.
“DCNR faces a documented need of more than $1 billion in state parks and forests to fix and maintain the roads, bridges, dams, sewer systems, and other crucial infrastructure that allows visitors to enjoy our parks and forests safely; more visitors will put an even greater strain on this infrastructure.
“And throughout the Commonwealth, local governments and volunteer groups are working to create parks, playgrounds, green spaces, and trails that provide opportunities for escape close to home, while lifting real estate values and attracting residents and businesses.
“Investing in conservation and recreation projects injects millions of dollars into the economy, sustaining quality local jobs and keeping businesses that anchor communities-- such as construction and engineering companies-- afloat.
“It is crucial that DCNR is able to continue to fund these projects in order to help communities—and the state as a whole—recover from the devastating economic effects of the pandemic. Cuts or raids to dedicated funding sources will only make recovery more difficult.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout have made it abundantly clear that outdoor recreation is vital to Pennsylvania’s economy and the wellbeing of millions of its citizens.
“In the most difficult time of their lives, people have turned to parks, forests, trails, and neighborhood green spaces.
“It has never been more important to invest in these resources and ensure they exist for future generations to turn to in their own times of need.”
Trail Use Increased 52%
Frank Maguire, Trails & Recreation Manager, PA Environmental Council, said a recent report by the Council documented statewide trail use increased by 52 percent in March, compared to the previous year, with some trails were experiencing a 100-200 percent increases.
He added that many recreation equipment stores have sold out of inventory and the demand for equipment repairs and maintenance has "gone through the roof."
“Every day is like a weekend day now,” said one trail manager to PEC. Many trail managers also reported seeing a much wider variety of trail users, as many people from all walks of life went hiking or biking on a trail for the first time.
“In terms of capacity, many of the trail managers reported that their trailhead facilities such as parking lots were beyond capacity during these months. This speaks to a need for future expansion and more connections to eliminate pressure on the existing resources.”
Magurie added, “The Schuylkill Banks in downtown Philadelphia, was so crowded that the city actually closed the nearby MLK Drive to car traffic to relieve some of the pressure. The other trail was the Great Allegheny Passage in Ohiopyle State Park, which in April was officially closed to visitors.”
He said, on the negative side, other issues were reported like an increase of trash, either from littering or the suspension of trash pick up at the trails.
“Many local governments were forced to reduce or suspend park maintenance staff during the pandemic, and trails that rely on volunteers for routine maintenance faced their own challenges with providing service during this time.”
“Looking ahead, the good news is that people have had these assets to help them weather the Covid-19 pandemic, and increased use of our public forests, parks, and trails encourages healthier lifestyles for people of all ages in our Commonwealth at a time when they’re needed most.
“The bad news is that these resources were already under considerable strain from a management and maintenance standpoint, and the fact remains that not every Pennsylvanian has equal access. These resources need your support.”
Pittsburgh Park Use Increased 130%
Catherine Qureshi, Chief Operating Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said City parks are 130 percent above their baseline for usage and the Conservancy has been working to create new in-person and online recreation programming.
One example of those programs is a new initiative to allow families that want to try hiking or birdwatching to borrow a backpack or binoculars.
She pointed out Pittsburgh parks have a $400 million backlog in capital projects for parks and a $13 million maintenance shortfall. A voter-approved park tax in 2019 has now been delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic.
Qureshi said their goal as an organization is to have a safe park or green space within 10 minutes of everyone in Pittsburgh and to ensure disadvantaged communities get their fair share of investment.
Serving Recreation Needs In New Ways
Darla Cravotta, Community Relations Director for Allegheny County, said, “Whether walking along the lake at North Park, fishing at Deer Lakes, birdwatching in Harrison, visiting the buffalo in South Park, or running trails within any of the parks, we saw a significant increase in many park activities. In fact, every park experienced an increase in users.”
“Our [County] Health Director and County Executive encouraged outdoor recreation as the open spaces in our parks provided the perfect place for physically distant, but socially engaged activities.
“Our rangers took to the streets in our parks in vehicles and interacted more with park users reminding them of the need to physically distance, increasing the awareness of COVID-19 mitigation measures, even while outside.
“Our parks staff imagined programming in new ways, but also continued programs where participants were already physically distant such as yoga in the park, or mountain bike classes.”
She said although their pools were closed, “Drive-in Movies are being offered weekly and our summer music series continued as well, although in a different format – as we began showcasing the featured artists in a one-hour television show on the CW.
“Our two golf courses at North and South Park are operating and we continue to see more people coming out, even though there are new rules and protocols in place.”
“Allegheny County staff are discussing the winter season right now and what necessary steps will need to be taken to safely open our two outdoor ice rinks in North and South parks and the ski slopes and tubing area in Boyce Park.
“As we look to the spring, ongoing preparations include installation of UV Light disinfecting systems in our spray parks, flush toilet facilities with sinks in each of the parks, and continued development of outdoor attractions that provide experiences in our parks safely.
“The needs continue to be great. Funding specifically for safety measures specific to parks – at the state, county and municipal level is critical. The ability to provide safe, physically distant programming outdoors and using web-based programming is important.
“With that, access to affordable broadband internet and the equipment necessary to engage is a responsibility we all carry, especially as programming can be important for physical and mental health.
“We remain committed to meeting the recreational needs of our communities in a variety of ways and will continue to provide the services and amenities that they rely on to the best of our abilities.”
Need For More Open Space
Matthew Galluzzo, CEO of Riverlife, described how his organization has spearheaded the development of a 15-mile system of riverfront parks, trails, and open spaces in the heart of Pittsburgh and the investment of $132 million in infrastructure development that leveraged $4.2 billion in investment along the three rivers.
“... (H)eavy riverfront utilization during COVID has brought a key issue to the forefront: we need more open space.
“Pennsylvania is uniquely positioned to meet this challenge. One of our Commonwealth’s many assets is the number of waterfront towns and cities throughout the state. Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, 64 have significant creeks, rivers or lakes.
“As we have learned from witnessing people flock to Pittsburgh’s riverfronts during the past six months, waterfronts are the flexible spaces in cities and towns for these activities when office workers, residents, and visitors need access to fresh air and physical distance.”
“A terrific place for the legislature to start is by retaining and expanding the PA Waterfront Development Tax Credit as a tool to help create public open space projects.”
Resources Needed To Build, Maintain Trails
Kelsey Ripper, Executive Director of Friends of the Riverfront, provided comments on how trails like the Three Rivers Heritage Trail have expanded to become a regional asset generating more than $9 million a year in economic activity and a reason people and businesses locate in Pittsburgh.
"People are turning to trails for recreation, exercise, transportation and comfort, but trails also make people healthier, which is especially important in these extraordinary times," she said.
Ripper explained rural communities have fewer resources to build trails, and therefore, need more support from shareholders. She said, maintenance also remains a challenge for all trails that also need funding for trash clean-ups and repaving.
"We look to our local and state government as our partners to make these projects happen and keep trails available for future generations," she said. "We cannot do it alone and without your support."
New Outdoor Learning Lab
Valerie Beichner, President of the nonprofit Venture Outdoors whose mission is to remove barriers and create access to outdoor experiences, said, “While the COVID-19 environment shut down pieces of our operations such as our College, Custom and Community programming, it gave us an opportunity to stretch our virtual muscles and create experiences for the community in a whole new way.”
“As many of you know, the need for outdoor experiences only grew in the COVID-19 environment.
“Many of us take for granted that we have access to virtual tools and resources to find parks and trails; many of us might be able to lean on prior experiences to continue to get outdoors when all other forms of support are closed.
“Unfortunately, so many members of the community were without those resources leaving them isolated in a time when the outdoor environment could provide the much-needed stress-load and anxiety reduction we all need during this time.”
“Our team shifted quickly creating a new version of Junior Jo called the Outdoor Learning Lab.
“We’ve mailed and delivered hundreds of Junior Jo kits to children across the region including items such as our Outdoor Leadership Button series booklet; binoculars; seeds; soil; books; magnifying glasses; prizes and more! We also included a parent packet to guide parents through ‘on your own’ lessons complementing the daily one-hour virtual sessions with our staff.
“Now, the Outdoor Learning Lab is being marketed nationally as a new tool to help Venture Outdoors achieve our mission. We have momentum behind these innovative programs and approaches to outdoor learning. The key now is ensuring we have the resources to sustain them.”
“As the need for outdoor spaces and experiences continues to increase during this global pandemic, so will our dedication to ensuring resources and access to equitable experiences.”
Surge In Fishing/Boat Licenses
Timothy Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Fish and Boat Commission, said the Commission has seen a 20 percent increase in annual fishing license sales and a 40 percent increase in the sale of non-powered launch permits over last year.
“It is difficult to find a local retailer right now that can keep kayaks in stock. We welcome these new anglers and boaters and will do everything within our power to keep them returning to Pennsylvania’s waters year after year.”
In response to the pandemic, Schaeffer noted the Commission made major changes to its public information program to promote safe outdoor fishing and recreation.
“To minimize crowding along popular lakes and streams, we announced that trout season was open effective immediately on April 7, a weekday, while simultaneously cancelling our Mentored Youth Day. We then notified our customers that all pre-purchased 2020 voluntary youth fishing licenses will be honored in 2021.
“These were tough but necessary decisions, and most of the feedback we received from anglers was positive and supportive. “
“While our education staff was not able to hold in-person events this spring, they were able to develop new interactive, online Commission resources while working remotely.
“Our website now features an online Activities & Education Portal on our Learning Center webpage with “edu-tainment” resources for educators and families including videos, skills- building activities, printable coloring pages and crafts, newsletters, and more.”
“The surges we have seen in activity and user volume speak to the importance of having the resources and authority necessary to carry out the Commission’s mission.”
Bang For The Buck
Jacquelyn Bonomo, President and CEO of PennFuture, told the Committee, “Taxpayers are getting an overwhelming bang for their buck for their investments in recreation in all its forms.
“The Commonwealth’s past investments in our magnificent public forests, parks and waters-- in the Poconos, in the Laurel Highlands and PA Wilds, in city and town playgrounds, among others-- are proving to be absolutely the right thing for the physical and mental well-being for the people of our state.”
“Bicycle sales are up more than 120 percent. Kayak sales are up by 85 percent. Camping reservations are up 85 percent. Generations old and new are re-connecting with nature at an astounding rate.”
“It’s these facts—this inimitable connection between Pennsylvanians and nature—that puts into question the policy decisions of the last decade and the debates we’ve witnessed in the halls of the Capitol this year.”
“Lawmakers have raided funds dedicated to land protection and acquisition while also directing massive subsidies and tax payer dollars toward fracked gas and, most recently, petrochemicals.
“Despite being central to our economy and our wellbeing, legislators’ support for nature- based industries and green spaces is eroding. Our outdoor recreation industry is not getting the support it needs, in spite of the support it is giving us at this trying time.”
“While I was taking a drive with my mother through the Poconos on a Sunday afternoon recently, at a trailhead accessing a place called Hawk Falls in Hickory Run State Park, the scene was almost indescribable: cars lining the road for a mile in either direction, with people streaming into the area, many carrying coolers, some carrying beach umbrellas, to a place of such natural beauty in that park.
“This scene is playing out everywhere and state policymakers should take that into account when they consider cutting investments in green spaces again, or want to make it harder for people to use these public spaces by charging an entrance fee.”
“ In July 2020, PennFuture published a Green Stimulus and Recovery Platform for Pennsylvania that makes recommendations for investments, job preservation and creation that will not only jump start our economic path out of this pandemic and recession, but create an economic recovery that leans into a very different future for our state…”
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh) is Chair of the Committee and can be contacted by sending email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 717-787-4236.
[For more information on programs, initiatives, upcoming events and training opportunities for local and regional recreation programs, visit the PA Recreation and Park Society website. Like them on Facebook, Follow them on Twitter, visit their YouTube Channel, and find them on Instagram. Click Here to support their work.
[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: Three Rivers Heritage Trail.)
Related Articles This Week:
-- DCNR Good Natured Blog: Hiking Off The Beaten Path, Lesser Known State Forest Trails
-- DCNR Good Natured Blog: Great, But Lesser Known Pennsylvania Trails
-- DCNR Good Natured Blog: Try Some Less Traveled Trails During Sept. Trails Month
-- DCNR Good Natured Pennsylvanians: Bill Ritting, PA Trails Advisory Committee
[Posted: Sept. 17, 2020]
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