Pennsylvania seeks to preserve parks
NAZARETH — On a balmy weekday afternoon, when much of the Lehigh Valley was still at work or in school, the hiking trails at the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center were bustling with college students, retirees and everyone in between.
“I think the word got out,” observed Kristina Fattorusso, a Nazareth resident who was walking her dog Vito.
Fattorusso, a longtime parkgoer, is right.
Jacobsburg, a state park on 1,168 acres in Bushkill Township, Northampton County, saw its annual attendance balloon 35 percent to 235,793 visitors between 2011 and 2016.
Fattorusso wondered if the park's new education building, which opened in 2013, led more people to be aware of the park that features 18.5 miles of trails for walking, biking and horseback riding.
Across Pennsylvania, and especially in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding region, the state park system has seen an explosion of visitors. Attendance at the 121 parks grew from 36.8 million in 2011 to more than 40 million in 2016, according to state data.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Bureau of State Parks is asking all park users to fill out a survey to help it put together a 25-year strategic plan for the system.
Park officials hope to learn more about what visitors want from their parks, whether they notice natural resources being affected by overuse and how they should protect parks.
Attendance booms have led to worries that some parks have become too popular. Neshaminy State Park in Bucks County has had to open its overflow parking lots, with up to 400 extra spaces, more frequently in the last two years. Estimates show attendance growing from 892,000 in 2014 to more than 1 million in 2016.
The crush of visitors is taking a toll on the park's natural resources and causing soil compaction and tree damage, not to mention wearing out picnic grills and increasing the burden on maintenance staff to keep up with litter and bathroom use, said Neshaminy park Manager Brian Heath.
“We jokingly say here we're being loved to death by our visitors,” Heath said.
State park staff can't pinpoint any one contributing factor, but they suspect that free admission, low camping fees, the residual effect of the Great Recession and simple enthusiasm for the outdoors contributed to increased attendance.
Pleasant weather can't be discounted either, they said.
They've noticed more people from out of state coming to their parks, and increased diversity among park attendees.
More than half of the state park growth has occurred in the system's Region 4, which encompasses the eastern part of the state and includes the Lehigh Valley.
Using sensors to count visitors, the state found that park use in Region 4 grew by nearly 2 million to 14 million between 2011 and 2016. The increase comes as the area's population growth has remained flat.
Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County had the highest growth in the region, rising 55 percent to nearly 1.5 million visitors.
Delaware Canal State Park saw a 40 percent spike to just over 1 million visitors, according to state data.
Bethany Hare, an assistant park manager, said that among the reasons for the increase at Delaware Canal State Park is the popularity of paddle sports such as kayaking.
She also attributed some of the rise to the byproduct of the promotion done by the National Park Service in 2016 to celebrate its centennial year.
National parks had a banner year in 2016, with a total of 331 million visits across the country. Zion National Park in Utah is so crowded that it is considering requiring reservations to get in, according to The New York Times.
“That was a nationwide, all-parks, all-encompassing push to get people outdoors and visiting their parks,” Hare said.
Rob Neitz, manager at Jacobsburg, gets the sense the increase is tied to the economic collapse of 2008.
“People started staying closer to home and weren't traveling as far for vacations,” he said. “Camping and going to your state park became a local, feasible staycation.”
Meanwhile, Paul Zeph, planning section chief at the Bureau of State Parks, said population changes could be driving attendance patterns.
While Pennsylvania itself hasn't seen much of a population climb, more people are moving to urban or suburban areas, and thus are going to the nearby state parks to enjoy nature.
Too many visitors?
In Pennsylvania, a handful of parks might be drawing more crowds than they can handle.
Tamara Peffer, a communications liaison for the Bureau of State Parks, said some state park campgrounds repeatedly were nearly filled to capacity this year, with some turning people away.
She said that whether a park is too crowded depends on the park. It some cases it means campgrounds are full while others might have a particularly busy trail. And, she said, many popular programs require reservations.
A handful of parks, including Neshaminy, do shut people out for a few hours on particularly busy weekends when pleasant weather conspires to fall on a holiday weekend and the parks simply get overcrowded, Zeph said.
That happened at Beltzville State Park in Carbon County over the Fourth of July weekend. A new task force has been formed to tackle the issue there and in other parks such as Neshaminy with similar problems.
Hare said Delaware Canal State Park had to install more trash cans because the carry in/carry out policy wasn't working.
State park managers hope the DCNR's survey will help state officials figure out how to handle overcrowding and what people expect when they visit a park.
In doing the survey, DCNR wants park visitors to tell them what features they want at parks, whether they think park use is hurting natural resources, how to pay for state parks and what modern conveniences should be available.
The survey is available until Oct. 31 online in English and Spanish at www.PennsParksForAll.com or in paper form at state parks. Toward the end of September about 12,000 surveys had been filled out online and 3,000 on paper.
“You hear anecdotally people love us. People want to come to our resource. People want outdoor time,” Peffer said. “People want to have a way to spend time with their family and nature without high expenses, and since the state parks are everyone's, that's the best place to do it, or one of the best places.”
Zeph, who said parks officials are meeting with stakeholder groups, said he hopes to learn why people are going to popular parks and whether they'd be amenable to visiting a different, less-popular park when others are full, or whether they'd go somewhere else if a particularly popular activity was offered there.
He said it's possible that some parks have room to expand their facilities, such as parking and toilets, although whether staff would be available to handle the influx remains to be seen.
The state has allocated an estimated $106,428,000 for the current fiscal year, about $3.5 million for than last year's outlay. But Zeph noted that state parks have a $500 million maintenance backlog already.
“As we have the demand from the public for more facilities and fewer staff to support those facilities, well, how do we balance that? We're not sure of the answers and we need the public input and the state decision makers' input to help us sort that out,” he said.
Zeph said that for now, there are more questions than answers. He wondered whether parks should hire contractors if there's a hiring freeze, or allow nonprofits or other groups to manage more parks.
“Are there some parks we should close and shift those staff resources to other places? Or just close bathrooms so we don't have to worry about maintenance for those parks, or have pit toilets in some places and shift maintenance resources to more parks?” he asked. “A lot of questions, more questions and no answers at the moment.”
Back at Jacobsburg, Neitz agreed with parkgoer Fattorusso that the new office and visitors center is driving the increase in attendance. He noted the center includes indoor teaching space.
“We've been able to offer programs in the evenings and maintain our school programs even if there's inclement weather,” Neitz said.
Neitz thinks Jacobsburg is different — it's mostly used regularly by locals and is less of a destination park than those with waterfalls and other attractive features.
But, he says, it seems mountain biking has increased in popularity, and across the Lehigh Valley people are increasingly using trails.
That's why Neitz is hoping visitors will fill out the survey.
“There is always a fear of loving a place to death,” he said, “So I think that's a lot of the reason we want people's input through the survey, because we are recognizing that across the system we're seeing more people using our parks and that's certainly going to impact how parks are managed.”