A few of the 2.6 million visitors to Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park in 2020.
(Photo: Will Parsons/Chesapeake Bay Program)

For months we’ve been hearing about increases in park visitation during the pandemic. Now some remarkable statistics are in. Today, we take a quick look at the numbers, and then, talk with one of the watershed’s state park directors.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest state park systems of Chesapeake watershed states. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Recreation, the 121 state parks saw 46,910,544 visitors in calendar year 2020 compared to 37,046,442 visitors in calendar year 2019. That’s a 27% increase.

Virginia’s 38 state parks recorded 7,805,520 visitors in 2020, a 13% increase over 2019. Day use numbers increased by 18% over 2019. DCR’s natural area preserves (not part of the state park system) had to staff parking areas most weekends because of demand; and visitation to the natural area preserve website was up 81% in 2020.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports Maryland’s 75 state parks drew 21,576,971 visits in 2020, a 45% increase over 2019. Ten parks had visitation increases well in excess of 100%.

Nita Settina (left) has served as Superintendent of Maryland State Parks since January 2008. She also was Maryland Department of Natural Resources Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Land Resources January 2019-February 2020.

And here’s a stunning number: Maryland state park closures due to being full to capacity occurred 292 times in 2020. The previous highs in 2015 and 2017 were less than half that. Patapsco Valley State Park, close to Baltimore and Maryland’s most visited with 2.6 million in 2020, had 109 closures due to reaching capacity.

Are state parks important? Clearly!

We asked Nita Settina, Superintendent of Maryland State Parks and also a member of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s Steering Committee, to reflect on this a bit during a conversation last week. Here are her thoughts in response to our questions:

What have state parks meant during the pandemic?

I was thinking about a moment back in April, a month into the pandemic, when I was standing at Seneca Creek State Park with a couple of rangers. Visitors were driving by on the road, honking, rolling down their windows, and calling out “thank you for keeping the parks open!” That has never happened to me before. It was just different. The immense sense of gratitude comes through in the written comments we get too, all stressing how much public lands are valued during this difficult time. 

The emotion is really palpable. “My gym is closed. I have to exercise or I can’t think. Thank God I discovered your trails.” “My kids are bouncing off the walls. Thank God for your state parks. They are having a great summer.” I’ve had people tell me state parks have saved their lives. I’ve had people say “Patapsco State Park got me to lose 100 pounds.” 

I think we need to reflect more on what this means for our investments in public lands .

I also think the public servants who have kept the park gates open have made us very proud. From people who clean the bathrooms to lifeguards, rangers, and maintenance workers — they are frontline heroes, too. They offered a sense of hope for people. They offered some semblance of vacations and holidays. 

That’s why our campgrounds and cabins were full. Very little else was open. People discovered nature and how healthy it was for their children. And the historic sites, too. They help teach us we’ve been through crises before and survived! The parks ensured for many people that holiday’s still happened. Summer still happened. That supports resiliency in society. Just like in nature where we need it, humans need it too. Parks and nature provided this.

What role can parks play in addressing the inequities faced by communities of color?

The other big theme of 2020. My experience is not “conserve it and they will come.” Because of the history of many of our parks and agencies, generations of people of color do not feel comfortable or invited. One of the best overviews of this history came in a recent webinar offered by the National Association of State Park Directors. Really worth watching.

We need to truly invite people of color, and engage, and expose. Urban and community parks are a really important piece of this because of transportation barriers. You need beautiful, well maintained urban parks. And, you need staff and volunteers doing programs in those parks, working with communities and schools, and inviting communities in. Or they often times may not come.

Urban nature is a wondrous thing. It can be rich, biologically diverse and offer many of the same things that any park can. We need to continue to invest in these places. And it’s a comparatively small investment with huge returns.

Parks are essential to urban areas on all levels — health, jobs, tax revenue, culture. An urban park system is a foundational part of the success of any city or community and can serve as a gateway to visiting state and national parks.

What could all this mean for parks in the future?

I hope it means more parks, number one. I hope it means more trails. More access to preserved natural areas and historic sites. The past year reemphasized for me our overall vision to continue to provide parks that are not overdeveloped — that provide basic services. Nature and historic sites are the draw. That is all people need. And we need more of it. Facilities have their place, but that’s not our primary mission.

2020 visitation will always have an asterisk. But it illustrates the need. And visitation will continue to grow from here. Fifteen Maryland state parks filling to capacity 292 times is not sustainable. That’s turning tens of thousands of people away from their parks. It shows people want and need more!

Why do you love what you do?

I really, really do. I feel so privileged to have this opportunity to serve. So fortunate. We all find joy in leading a life of purpose. There are many ways that can be defined. But my passion has always been conservation. And in my job I feel I can make a difference. The Maryland Park Service manages 140,000 acres and over a thousand employees. We can marshall significant resources. It’s an immense responsibility. But when you work with such great people, it’s a joy. It gives you that sense of legacy that we all seek.

Today’s Lightning Update was also published as one of the National Park Service Chesapeake Gateways Network’s Spotlight series.

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.