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Maryland

Maryland set to ‘transform’ its state park system amid record usage, making massive investment in rangers, new sites

If anyone in Patapsco Valley State Park has a problem, ranger Felicia Graves-Baker hears about it — whether it’s noisy campsite neighbors, a tree trunk blocking a trail, or, too commonly, a medical emergency. Visitors are often eager to meet a ranger, and encountering one makes them feel safer and behave more respectfully, park officials have found.

So a typical day takes Graves-Baker along the trails, ridges and streams spread across thousands of acres of the valley, along miles of the river through Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, “just to make our presence known.”

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But the chances a visitor will run into the Baltimore native have dwindled over the more than six years since she joined the Maryland Park Service. There are just too many of them: So many that Patapsco Valley filled to capacity nearly one out of every three days in 2020. When the weather is good, even in the dead of winter, Graves-Baker might spend more time directing traffic in the parking lot than on the trail.

“If we get a super nice day in January, we could have one ranger” on duty, she said. She hesitated to wonder what might happen if multiple emergencies coincided on a day like that.

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Reinforcements are on the way.

Maryland is set to invest tens of millions of dollars in its state parks at a time they are most needed. The number of people visiting them has more than doubled in less than a decade, with the sharpest surge coming just since the COVID-19 pandemic hit — to a record 21.7 million visitors last year. Meanwhile, the number of rangers has stagnated, and the price tag for a backlog of maintenance projects is $68 million and growing.

The General Assembly’s solution to those problems is the Great Maryland Outdoors Act, which became law this month. Among its provisions:

  • $70 million for deferred maintenance projects;
  • $80 million to buy land for new or expanded parks, to improve transportation to parks, to increase water access and to preserve historic sites;
  • $10 million a year in grants for park-related projects in Baltimore City, where there are no state parks; and,
  • The hiring of 100 new permanent staff, most of them park rangers, for $12 million in fiscal year 2024 and at least $9 million a year after that. The state park service will be required to review staffing needs every two years and review salary competitiveness every three years to improve retention.

Proponents say the legislation has the potential to be part of a historic third wave of investment in parks across the country, after the creation of national parks in the early 1900s and the projects of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The action comes as parks nationwide seek to tackle record visitation, backlogged maintenance and strapped budgets through the federal Great American Outdoors Act, passed last year to invest $1.9 billion in critical facilities and infrastructure at national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

Smooth passage

If there are critics, they are quiet. No one testified in opposition at February legislative hearings in Annapolis, and only one lawmaker voted against it.

Out of concern that its high price tag might draw a veto, the General Assembly sent it to Gov. Larry Hogan with enough time to potentially override him before it adjourned April 11. But the Republican allowed it to become law without his signature, making no public comments on it.

A historic budget surplus in Annapolis may have helped ease the legislation’s passage. The state found itself flush with cash as it began the budgeting process this year, thanks to a surge in federal spending and a quicker-than-expected rebound in sales and income tax revenues.

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“In normal conditions it would be something like, ‘Do you want to fund commitments for education, or do you want to fund the parks?’” said former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening, who led a commission that studied state park investment last year. “In this case, in this rather unique year, we were able to do both.”

It was easily popular among legislators, many of who had heard from constituents with concerns about the surging park demand as people sought to socialize safely outdoors during the pandemic.

“It’s a bill that will touch every corner of the state,” Sen. Sarah Elfreth said.

Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, sponsored the bill alongside Del. Eric Luedtke, a self-described “park nerd” who has hiked, mountain-biked and kayaked at most of Maryland’s 75 state parks, natural resource management areas and natural environment areas. The Montgomery County Democrat proposed to his wife at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in Owings Mills in 2019.

Happy rangers

But the legislation’s most fervent supporters may be the park rangers themselves.

“It’s going to transform the park system,” said Dean Hughes, president of the Maryland Rangers Association and assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls, North Point and Hart-Miller Island state parks. The rangers’ association acts like a union, advocating for its members, but does not engage in collective bargaining.

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Rangers choose to work in state parks because they care about the work, Hughes said, even though they could make more money elsewhere, including working in county parks. They use Rosetta Stone and Duolingo software to make sure they can communicate with an increasingly diverse clientele. They manage a diverse workload that has only broadened during the pandemic to include things like minding outdoor weddings, fixing plumbing or electricity when they can, installing split-rail fences or building benches.

And rangers factor heavily in visitors’ feedback, state parks Superintendent Nita Settina said, though she declined to comment directly on the legislation. Any interactions with rangers, especially among children, can have deep impacts on how visitors relate to parks.

“And if they don’t see us, they comment on that, too,” Settina said.

Those impacts have been limited since well before the pandemic — budget cuts in 2005 meant the loss of 100 rangers, whose workload was passed along to Natural Resources Police, a separate state agency that enforces boating and seafood industry laws and regulations. With that came incalculable losses of the historical and ecological lessons rangers often provide, Hughes said.

“It was the most significant and consequential action to ever impact our state parks,” he said. “We lost decades of institutional knowledge and the irreplaceable commodity of our future leaders in the park service.”

Rebounding from those losses has been a struggle given the heavy workload and relatively low compensation of state park rangers.

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Mel Poole, president of the Friends of Maryland State Parks Foundation and a former superintendent of the federally owned Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, said he hopes the new state investment changes that.

“We are losing people at the prime of their careers,” he said.

Plans for new parks

At the same time, state parks’ footprint continues to grow, and the new state investment will only accelerate the growing workload for rangers.

In the fiscal year starting July 1, the park service, which has an annual operating budget of about $60 million, is slated to have two fewer full-time staff than it did at its previous peak of 263, in fiscal year 2009. Back then, parks like Patapsco Valley filled to capacity only a handful of times a year, instead of 109 times in 2020.

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Among the newest parks: Wolf Den Run opened in Garrett County in 2019 as Maryland’s first with trails for off-road vehicles. And, to mark Earth Day, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford cut ribbons Friday to open Bohemia River State Park in Cecil County and Cypress Branch State Park in Kent County.

Under the legislation, work to expand the parks network even further is already underway. Priorities include expanding water access, promoting transit access to parks and preserving the history of underrepresented groups.

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The law establishes Freedman’s State Historical Park and the Port of Deposit State Historical Park under new models known as “partnership parks,” which connect existing county, state and nonprofit resources. In the case of Freedman’s State Historical Park in Montgomery County, it will include a site known as the Gaither-Howard House, the Underground Railroad Experience Trail at the county’s Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, and the nonprofit Sandy Spring Slave Museum.

The Gaither-Howard site helped inspire Luedtke to propose the legislation, he said, after state park ranger Shea Niemann showed him the need to restore the former home of Enoch George Howard, a Black man who bought his freedom from the Gaither family, the namesake of Gaithersburg. With the other Montgomery sites, it can be used to tell the stories of the lives of Black Marylanders before and after emancipation, Luedtke said.

Similar parks focused on preserving and interpreting the lives and experiences of Black Americans could follow soon at Carr’s Beach in Anne Arundel County, at Hill Road Park in Prince George’s County and in Waldorf. It was announced recently that what remains of Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach in Anne Arundel, both historic resorts for the Black community during segregation in the mid-20th century, were set to become public parks, purchased using a combination of federal, state and local money.

But any final decisions on new state parks going forward will be subject to a public review process akin to what it takes to establish a new national park, Elfreth said. Under the new law, there will be opportunities for public input through a new state Parks and Recreation Commission.

Over months of working to develop the Great Maryland Outdoors Act, “we heard a lot from people about their ideas for the park system,” Elfreth said. “We want to make sure that’s an annual tradition.”


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