Visitors pile into Cunningham Falls State Park.
Credit: Baltimore Sun/Barbara Haddock Taylor
“Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.” This line often attributed to baseball great Yogi Berra is really traced back to England in the late 1800’s. But it is very timely in discussing pressures on outdoor recreation opportunities.
In February, we discussed the dramatic increases in visitation to state, local, and national parks due to COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery. This week we focus on how park capacity is determined and some of the steps being taken to address the pressures of increased popularity on park resources.
In 2020 you might have packed up the car for a picnic or a day in the park in the mountains or along the shore only to find a “closed” sign at the park entrance. If the park wasn’t entirely closed for public health considerations, it might have reached its capacity to accommodate visitors. For example, in 2020 several Maryland state parks were filled and had to turn away visitors 292 times. Patapsco Valley State Park, close to Baltimore and Maryland’s most used with 2.6 million visitors in 2020, had 109 closures due to reaching capacity. Visits to Maryland state parks were up 45% in 2020 over the previous year in spite of closures. Virginia state parks recorded a 14.5% increase while Pennsylvania state parks experienced 27% more visitors.
A now-common sight on the Maryland State Parks’ Twitter account
Determining a park’s capacity can be a complex art and science, identifying indicators and standards and measuring visitor impacts on resources as well as the quality of experiences being provided. The more obvious number to consider is how many parking spaces are available. When the park’s lot is filled, cars are turned away and this effectively limits the number of visitors using facilities, water, sewer, and trails.
Park managers also are pursuing a variety of strategies to address capacity challenges that began even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many park organizations are looking at new, innovative ways to track park use, to capture data on how the use is changing and how this could affect decisions on utilizing limited resources. While managers feel the urgency of serving communities and meeting needs, developing tools to measure and understand efficient use and management will lead to smarter decisions in the future.
In a recent US Senate hearing, The National Park Service (NPS) outlined a series of actions it could take to better accommodate increases in visits expected in the coming years. A first step is to provide up to the minute data on the status of parks and specific areas within those parks so that visitors can plan accordingly to avoid the biggest crowds.
Increased efforts to reduce the impacts visitors are having on sensitive resources is another strategy. NPS has long championed the slogan “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” That might need some reconsideration as footprints in sensitive areas are not so desirable but the message to tread lightly is still valid.
Through a longstanding partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Inc., the Maryland Park Service will be educating visitors about several simple principles that will help them make responsible decisions to better minimize their impact, while maximizing their outdoor recreational experience. These include planning ahead, sticking to trails, packing out your trash, leaving what you find, keeping wildlife wild, being careful with fire, and being considerate of other visitors.
Prompt communications via twitter and other platforms also can direct visitors to less crowded locations or other destinations including forest or wildlife management areas.
A graphic encouraging Leave No Trace practices
Credit: Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Reservation systems may be one of the most effective tools for the future. Although widely accepted for campsites and cabins or other overnight accommodations, park managers at the federal, state and local levels recognize that day use reservations may become more common as demand continues to be high. Requiring reservations challenges visitors who value spontaneity and argue for unrestricted access to public parks. Reservation systems also may present obstacles to goals for expanding access to underserved communities. On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun reports that at the popular Falling Branch area of Rocks State Park in Harford County, Maryland, where rangers regularly turn away a thousand cars on busy weekends, an online reservation system has generated mostly positive feedback from visitors who in the past endured lines and the possibility of being turned away after a long drive.
Transit systems including shuttle busses also are one way to deal with the impacts of too many cars and not enough places to park, especially in destinations like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, and the Grand Canyon. But transit systems are very expensive, especially if operated on a seasonal basis, and face obstacles from visitors who don’t want to be separated from their cars.
Shuttles busses at the Grand Canyon
Credit: National Park Service
Creating more parks, expanding existing parks, increasing park staff, and addressing maintenance needs are of course other approaches to meeting the increased demand for quality park experiences. But growing the system is expensive and time-consuming. In Maryland, state funding for expanding public lands has fluctuated over the years, despite a dedicated tax on real estate transfers meant to buy land for parks and conservation under Program Open Space.
This spring, Maryland lawmakers included $305 million in funding for parks and conservation in the state budget, including more than $111 million for Program Open Space and $85 million for maintenance and infrastructure projects in existing parks Public appreciation that parks are a scarce commodity and enthusiasm for outdoor recreation will hopefully be translated into support for increased funding in future years. Meanwhile, visitors should be encouraged to plan ahead for their adventures and have a back up plan for alternate destinations to help enjoy our parks and avoid the crowds.
A small positive from 2020 is the significant increase in interest in recreating outdoors and the new or renewed awareness of the associated wellness benefits. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted both the need for more parks and the need to reassess and address the access to those parks, in particular in certain communities where such resources are lacking. Our work in this area continues to be critical.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.