Pennsylvanians want their state parks to be better maintained, provide more active outdoor and educational opportunities and draw a more diverse population, according to a draft report recently released by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
That may mean more room for pets and big groups and maybe even a few treehouses.
The report, called “Penn's Parks for All,” is the result of two years of surveys and discussions with thousands of outdoor enthusiasts and novices. The ambitious planning effort is the first in 25 years for the state's 121 parks, and aims to guide stewardship for the next 25 years. It could have a wide-ranging influence on tourism, conservation and economic development, some experts say.
How the plan will affect specific parks, such as French Creek and Nolde Forest in Berks County, is not yet clear. A lot depends on funding, resident input and the condition of facilities. The plan is not yet final.
Here are a few interesting recommendations:
• Increase to 50%, from the current 37%, the number of campsites that are pet-friendly.
• Improve accessibility for water-based recreation by developing canoe and kayak launch sites for people with all abilities on all major recreational lakes within state parks.
• Increase to 50, from the current five, the number of large, multi-family campsites statewide.
• Examine trends for new types of overnight facilities and institute pilot projects, such as building elevated camping cottages to simulate a treehouse.
• Add 100 rental cabins.
• Increase full-service campsites from the current 5% to 20% of all sites.
Enhance water-based recreational offerings by developing innovative water facilities and activities, consistent with each park's natural aesthetic and character. An example would be developing a water/splash play area with the look of boulders and rock ledges where natural water recreation amenities are not available.
• Partner with the health industry in marketing state park outdoor recreational activities as a means of reducing obesity and stress and developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The draft recommendations are based on a series of surveys conducted by Penn State in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, 10,186 adults responded online and 4,090 answered surveys at parks. A 2018 statewide telephone effort reached out to 1,650 Pennsylvanians; and an online survey the same year targeted 1,131 Latinos, Asians and African Americans.
DCNR is taking public comments online until Dec. 31 and at meetings throughout the state. A public input session is scheduled Dec. 11 at the French Creek Park office, 843 Park Road, Elverson, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A final report is expected in the summer. The Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation is co-hosting the session.
Keeping parks relevant
In essence, the plan seeks to make sure Pennsylvania parks are serving all residents. The surveys asked about residents' interests, use of the parks as well as their needs.
It will be key to keeping parks accessible to the state's aging population, said Marci Mowery, president of Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation, a nonprofit that supports state parks. It works with volunteer groups throughout the state.
Mowery said through Pennsylvanians indicated through the survey how they want to use the parks. The report said they are embracing "healthful outdoor recreation activities with the expectation of quiet, natural, or wild experiences."
They want to incorporate current trends and take advantage of available technology.
"People are saying 'we're done with pit toilets,' " Mowery said.
It makes sense to make sure the parks remain relevant.
"How we use our parks changes with each generation," Mowery said.
The planning process comes as state parks struggle with upkeep and people's interest in getting healthier through outdoors activity increases.
Earlier this year, Mowery's organization identified $1 billion of deferred maintenance in the state's 300,000 acres of parks and forests. French Creek State Park, according to employees, is struggling to keep up with things like restroom and facility improvements; removal and replacement of hazardous trees; and restoration of historic structures.
Pennsylvania Parks and Forest Foundation estimated that infrastructure repairs at French Creek would cost $2.23 million.
Nolde Forest faces an estimated $900,000 in upkeep, including eradication of invasive plants and fixing a drinking-water pump. Its trails need attention, due to erosion. A bathroom at Sawmill parking lot needs propane tanks so its pipes don't freeze in the winter.
Jennifer Stinson, president of the Friends of Nolde Forest, said the report's call to connect parks to culture and history could be an opportunity to refurbish the old sawmill on the property so that it could house educational programs.
Mowery said upgrades can address the deferred maintenance, as well as the community's changing needs and interests.
Interest in outdoors activity is resurging, say tourism and conservation leaders. This plan would indirectly influence those sectors.
Crystal Seitz, president of Berks County's tourism bureau, said consumer attitudes and interests expressed in the report were no surprise. Her bureau has been pitching the area's outdoor lifestyle to visitors for years. Consumers' desire for quiet hikes, as well as activities such as mountain biking, have been keys for the bureau.
"When I read this, it all makes sense to me," she said.
She sees a renewed interest in the outdoors from baby boomers and Generation X.
The call for more education about outdoors activity resonated with Seitz, who noted that the Berks Area Mountain Biking Association is working on ways to educate new riders.
"The good news is that we have what people are asking for," she said.
The state park plan will influence regional conservation and outdoors groups, said Tami Shimp, vice president of development and community relations at Berks Nature in Reading.
Shimp said that when she applies for grants, a factor is how a particular project serves community goals. So aligning projects with state plans can be important to funding.
Berks Nature recently announced Berks ParkRx, an initiative connecting the outdoors to health.
"I think it (Penn's Parks for All) fits many of our goals and programming and desires for Berks County," Shimp said.
She said what's most exciting is not just protecting nature, but educating people about it. That includes reaching a diverse population that doesn't typically use parks.
A bigger picture
The report also explores how residents would fund the park improvements.
"There is strong public concurrence that the Commonwealth should increase funding to maintain, repair, and improve park facilities, and that increased funding occur without creating new fees or increasing existing costs to park visitors," the report said. "In addition, there is mild support among 2017 survey respondents for converting low-usage parks to being more rustic with minimal facilities."
Stinson noted that residents say they want state parks to continue to be free, which makes them accessible to everyone. Some other states, such as Delaware, charge entrance fees.
Having a plan for state parks is important for economic reasons, Mowery said.
"From a bigger picture, the outdoor industry is a $29 billion industry in Pennsylvania, employing 219,000 people," she said. That includes those in manufacturing as well as in outdoors-related retail and tourism.
"The stability and vibrancy of our parks is important to tourism and our quality of life," Mowery said.
Quality of life, she noted, is an economic driver, attracting investment and a workforce.
"It comes through loud and clear how much people care about their parks," Mowery said.