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Pennsylvania’s state parks have more visitors and less money — and fresh hopes to change that

An ambitious, detailed 25-year vision for Pennsylvania’s state park system is being developed, even as park funding has stagnated over the last several years.

Boats are stored near Hopewell Lake at French Creek State Park in Elverson, Pa. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, during peak fall foliage time.
Boats are stored near Hopewell Lake at French Creek State Park in Elverson, Pa. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, during peak fall foliage time.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Night-sky viewing, adventure activities, pet-friendly campsites. Repairing dams, pavilions, and historical structures. Expanding education, climate-change efforts, and attendance.

These ideas and more are part of an ambitious 25-year vision for Pennsylvania’s state park system that officials say would aim to guide the parks for the next generation — and presents a version of the parks that could be attained if Harrisburg boosted funding.

In the last 30 years, even as the system has expanded to 121 parks and annual attendance hit 40 million, staffing has been cut and a $500 million backlog in infrastructure maintenance projects emerged. Without more funding, managers warn that some parks may eventually have to scale back their offerings or even shut down.

“We have fewer staff and we have less money,” said Marci Mowery, president of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, which advocates for $100 million more a year and is an umbrella for a few dozen parks friends groups. “Have you ever hosted a large gathering and then they leave and you have cleanup? Imagine 40 million guests coming to your house on an annual basis.”

» READ MORE: The retiree hosts who help keep Pennsylvania’s state parks running

The pressing needs provide the backdrop for the Penn’s Parks for All report released this fall by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which lays out proposals for outdoor recreation, overnight accommodations, protecting resources, services and facilities, and funding. Officials have been presenting their preliminary recommendations at each of the 70 state park complexes, seeking residents’ feedback and engagement. They intend to deliver a final version to state lawmakers next summer, right around the time of state budget deliberations.

“What we tried to find is what do people really care about and what does that mean for change in the way we do business at state parks for the next 20 or 30 years?” Paul Zeph, head of planning for the state parks, told nearly 30 residents gathered at French Creek State Park in Berks County on Dec. 11.

The recommendations, which people can read and respond to on the DCNR’s website, were developed after surveys of more than 16,000 residents. The DCNR is taking comments until Dec. 31.

“It’s great that they’re doing it,” said Jamey Hutchinson, a trail volunteer at French Creek State Park who attended the meeting.

That park is among 15 in the Greater Philadelphia region, from White Clay Creek in southern Chester County to Nolde Forest in Berks and Nockamixon in Bucks.

James Wassel, park manager at French Creek and Marsh Creek State Parks, which get up to two million visitors per year, has worked for the park system for 10 years. The plan is likely to guide his career for years to come.

“For me, it’s really going to give me a snapshot of what I’m hoping is a reflection of what all my park visitors want,” Wassel said.

The DCNR’s recommendations include expanding and improving trail systems, improving accessibility, renovating campgrounds and adding cabins, and increasing multifamily campsites. It sets conservation goals, recommends steps for attracting new and diverse people to the parks, proposes expanded education, and suggests projects to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"Local communities need more investment into protecting our land and water,” said Sarah Chudnovsky, 29, a land protection specialist at Berks Nature who attended the French Creek meeting.

Giovanni Nieves, a Sunrise Movement volunteer in Reading and a senior at Kutztown University, said he thought the report’s recommendations were “hopeful” but he was concerned about the potential effect of natural gas pipelines on the public lands.

“This report could’ve addressed it because it’s going to impact the landscape, the future, of our state parks,” said Nieves, 22.

The park system’s $500 million maintenance backlog is for roads, trails, historic preservation, pavilions, and campgrounds, as well as critical repairs for dams, bridges, water treatment facilities, and wells.

“It’s not just woods and picnic tables," Zeph said. “There’s an awful lot of stuff that it takes to run state parks to the expectation of what the public is looking for.”

The DCNR’s general fund received just over $105 million in 2017-18, an amount that has stayed about the same for the last 15 years and about 0.16% of the state’s general budget, according to the DCNR and an analysis by the parks advocates. State park staff hit a high of more than 2,200 employees around 1990; by 2015, it had dropped to just over 1,400.

A 2012 Penn State analysis showed that state parks contribute to the economy $1.15 billion in sales and $400 million in labor income. Every dollar invested by the state in the parks returns $12.41 to Pennsylvania’s economy, the researchers determined.

The department’s report calls for increasing staffing by 15%, improving the state park volunteer program, finding funding to renovate buildings in the worst condition, and fixing critical water infrastructure problems, among other things. It also calls for the state budget to include enough funding that the DCNR doesn’t have to use other dedicated funds for general operations.

“To some degree, it’s a matter of political will,” said Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware). “That changes with the composition of the legislature and how they value state parks and forests.”

The DCNR surveyed more than 14,000 park users in 2017, and did smaller surveys in 2018 targeted at nonusers and nonwhite Pennsylvanians, who visit the parks less often.

“One of the pieces of data [in the report] is that Pennsylvanians love their state parks and Pennsylvanians want their parks to be maintained,” Mowery said. “Even nonusers indicated that they strongly valued knowing that the parks existed."