Pennsylvania state parks have plans to provide better resources for visitors as attendance numbers have grown.
In an exclusive interview John Hallas, director of state parks for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, spoke about how the coronavirus pandemic impacted the state parks as well as how the agency is adapting to the growing needs of its visitors.
Throughout the roughly 20 months of the pandemic, state parks have been a respite for many people looking for a place to relax.
“We kept our gates open,” Hallas said about the spring of 2020. “We were deemed essential.”
Before the pandemic, state parks averaged about 38 million visitors a year, but about 47 million people explored state parks in 2020. Hallas believes the numbers included people who haven’t been to a park before or for a long time.
“In 2021, we did see the numbers come down a bit, but they were still well above our pre-pandemic visitation numbers," he sad. "What people always want is those recreational opportunities or that experience and that immersion in nature.”
The trend of people enjoying the outdoors is expected to continue this year.
“In 2022, we can expect again we’re not going to lose additional visitation from 2021," Hallas said. "We believe we have sort of a new norm as far as our visitations go.”
Park visitors can expect to see improvements to access areas for trails and waterways as well as more recreational amenities.
In addition to ongoing improvement and maintenance work, he said the agency is focusing on better ways to inform and communicate with people about the assets and opportunities that are available at each park.
He said outdoor education specialists will be available and providing additional programs.
“With all of the new park users, people didn’t necessarily understand maybe the safest way or the most environmentally friendly and sustainable way to be interacting with those natural and cultural resources,” he said.
Some of the concerns include educating people about proper attire like hiking shoes or boots that make sense for the topography as well as providing additional information about trails including the amount of time it takes to complete a trail.
Hallas said some of the work planned involves “better trailhead amenities, everything from the parking area itself, to information at the parking area and trailhead to conference facilities. And at that next level we’re looking at ADA accessibility as well.”
Parks are looking to add handicapped accessible kayak launches and ADA accessible trail experiences. “We’re making those improvements; we’re targeting and prioritizing those projects, to bring people into the resource,” he said about providing better access for everyone who wants to enjoy a trail or waterway.
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Park staff is working on improving mapping information to better describe the trails. “We are in the process of updating those individual trail descriptions for every trail in the 121 state parks,” he said about wanting more mobile friendly maps as well in 2022.
The description of each of the thousands of trails in the state should have a uniform style of information and amenities to help visitors “to better target their experience for what they are looking for.”
In recent years, parks like Laurel Hill in Somerset County have received solar panel installations to offset their energy costs. This year several more solar projects are planned across the state including the Pymatuning maintenance building, Mount Pisgah Pump House, Weiser Forest District RMC Complex, Moraine bike rental area, Moraine Region 2 Office, Gifford Pinchot Sewage Treatment Plant area, Prince Gallitzin Maintenance Complex, Jacobsburg EEC, Nockamixon Maintenance Complex, Evansburg maintenance building, and Tyler park office.
The park system is looking to add more than 1,000 full-service camping sites to the state’s existing 6,000-plus campsites over the next several years including recent work at Ohiopyle, Codorus, French Creek, and Ricketts Glen state parks. For campers, he said, sewage, water and electric on site are always in demand.
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The DCNR is also looking at improvements for cellphone service and internet access in the park systems and partnering with municipalities and other private companies.
In 2021, Fayette County received funding for WiFi Hot spots and he said one is planned to be in operation this year at the Ohiopyle main falls area. Another partnership provides WiFi at the Prince Gallitzin State Park campground. He believes having that type of infrastructure at more parks will help visitors to extend their stay, especially for those who are able to work remotely.
“Technology, again, is evolving so fast that there will be connectivity options for us that are far less invasive and impactful on the resource moving forward,” he said.
Scope of infrastructure
“Our parks are essentially established like municipalities in many ways,” Hallas said in regard to infrastructure.
He pointed out in the 121 state parks in the commonwealth, there are 90 dams, 490 miles of roadways, 332 vehicle bridges, 770 pedestrian bridges, more than 4,000 buildings, 128 drinking water treatment facilities, 59 wastewater treatment systems, 15 swimming pools, more than 1,500 miles of trails, two golf courses, 11 marinas and four ski areas.
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To maintain all of those facilities, he said, they work from a three-year planning structure based on the funding that is available for a variety of resources. “The Keystone Fund (Key 93) and the Environmental Stewardship Fund are sort of the necessary elements to keep our doors open and to provide those recreational experiences and keep our infrastructure safe, up to date, modernized and available,” he said.
In addition to those two funds and capital project funding, “it’s never enough to address our backlog,” he said about maintenance and improvement needs.
He explained there are more than $700 million in projects that are on their list for the future. It’s more than $1 billion if you add in the forestry components of DCNR. “A lot of projects are always in the pipeline,” he said.
The park service is hiring. “We had staffing challenges that were sporadic and periodic over time, but nothing like we experienced during the last two years,” Hallas said about not being able to fill some job vacancies.
One impact was having to close some swimming pools, such as at Caledonia State Park, because of a lack of life guards. “It’s getting harder and harder to hire life guards,” he said about applicants needing to commit to the certifications.
The park service is now providing certification programs for people to become lifeguards. They are also looking at recruiting more rangers and maintenance staff.
For people interested in filling a seasonal or permanent position, visit the commonwealth’s website, employment.pa.gov and search for DCNR.
There are four alpine downhill ski areas in the park system. Laurel Mountain, Blue Knob and Big Pocono all have partnering businesses that have the facilities open to the public. Skiing at Denton Hill in Potter County has been closed for seven years because of a lack of a public/private partnership.
“Down hill ski operations are certainly one part of our winter recreational menu, but not the only part because we have Nordic ski opportunities, we have cross country ski opportunities, snow shoeing, snowmobiling all those winter recreation, high demand recreation when conditions exist,” Hallas said.
In winter sports like downhill skiing, he said, “weather is a critical element in how well they are doing.” They at least need cold temperatures to be able to make additional snow over what Mother Nature provides. “It gets more challenging each and every year for our operators with climate change being a driver in that.”
“December was a terrible month,” he said about warm weather for skiing, but the weather for snowmaking improved in January.
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Places that have cross country ski areas, like Laurel Ridge, haven’t been having sustained snow packs. “We want sustained cold temps and we want good snow cover,” he said about winter recreation. “We expect it, we need it and we enjoy it when it arrives.”
State parks have a direct impact on the economies where they are located. “We’ve had robust economic impact studies over the years,” he said.
“For every dollar invested in state parks returns $13 approximately to the Pennsylvania economy across the board,” he said about the study’s findings. Each park has its own economic impact study that contributes to that number. “State parks are economic engines,” he said about helping rural areas as well as larger communities such as Point State Park in Pittsburgh and Presque Isle State Park in Erie.
In the 1960s, he said there was a goal to try to have a park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvanian. “We have this amazing system of parks that are distributed across the commonwealth and in nearly every county.”
Because of those natural resources, people will travel. “They will come great distances,” he said about the impact to the communities and businesses near state parks.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Pennsylvania's 121 state parks have facility upgrades to implement