Collecting 'trail badges' [Commentary]

Those who are able shouldn't miss the beauty of state and national parks

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— Right now I have a lot of "trail badges," the cuts and scabs I accumulated from a week hiking in the Adirondack Mountains.

Along with some eye-popping pictures taken from eight summits, they serve as temporary souvenirs until I reach my goal of becoming what's known as a "46er" — a person who has climbed all 46 of the Adirondack high peaks in my home state of New York.

Out on these mostly desolate trails, often alone for five to seven hours at a stretch, I have plenty of time to think. My mind wanders mostly toward existential thoughts, but I also wonder why so few people seem to take advantage of our natural resources.

Hundreds of millions of Americans avail themselves every year of state and national park lands. But national park attendance has remained relatively constant across the past two decades, which means per capita use rates have been trending slowly downward.

For example, although the American population grew more than 12 percent from 281 million to 316 million between 2000 and 2013, recreational visits to national parks during this period fell from 285 million to 273 million.

I've been unusually blessed to have visited about 30 national parks, including most of better-known and popular parks in the continental United States: Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Glacier in Montana/Wyoming; Yosemite and Sequoia in California; and Arches, Bryce and Zion in Utah. From the bottom of Arizona's Grand Canyon to the top of Acadia in Maine to the depths of the Florida Keys, I've felt awe and gratefulness that our citizens and leaders had the foresight to protect these places and spaces.

The recession that began in 2007 undoubtedly made it more difficult to pay for airfare, gas, lodging and food necessary for long trips to visit America's natural wonders — and especially for Easterners who reside far from the magnificent parks located west of the Mississippi River. Even for those on the West Coast who may face only a short drive from, say, the San Francisco Bay area to Yosemite National Park, reaching Yellowstone National Park would require a plane or car ride of roughly 1,000 miles — about the distance between Baltimore and Miami.

Still, it's hard not to connect news of whatever the latest national study of rising American obesity with the empty paths I encountered in these birch and maple-lined woods.

Just last month, Gallup reported that the obesity rate among Americans reached 27.7 percent — the highest level recorded to date. There are age, race, regional and income-related patterns to obesity: Older, non-white, poorer and southern Americans have higher than average rates of obesity. The 31.5 percent obesity rate for those with annual incomes at or below $36,000 is about a third higher than the 23.1 percent rate those with incomes at or above $90,000.

Park visitation rates in Maryland tell a similar story.

In 2010, the Maryland Office of Tourism Development and Department of Business and Economic Development released the first economic impact and visitor study of Maryland's park facilities. According to the report, of the 86 percent of survey respondents who indicated their race, 77 percent were white. Only about 2 percent of park users were African American — a low figure for the state with the nation's fourth largest black population.

Though it doesn't entail a costly, cross-country flight, visiting in-state parks is cheaper but not necessarily cheap. The Maryland tourism study reported that a typical group of three park visitors incurred an average of $111 in food, gas and other expenses per single-day visit, or $37 per person. That's a lot of money to spend to collect a day's worth of trail badges.

Of course, one need not visit one of our amazing national or closer-to-home state parks to exercise. Surely millions of Americans and many Marylanders exercise indoors at gyms, community facilities or their own homes. A long, vigorous walk around the neighborhood burns calories, too.

But for those who have the time and inclination — and, yes, money — visiting the gorgeous state and national parks that our taxes paid for and maintain can be very rewarding.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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The "crush" defense [Poll]

Attorneys for Maureen McDonnell and her husband, former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, told a jury this week that the couple wasn't scheming to get rich by abusing the prestige of the governor's office, but rather that Mrs. McDonnell had a "crush" on an executive and couldn't help but allow the man to lavish $150,000 in gifts on the pair while they happened to promote his diet supplement. Is that plausible?

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