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By reservation only? Visitors are flocking to Maryland’s state parks, which don’t always have room for them.

Two-year-old Timothy Cho splashed about in the shallow water of the Patapsco River on a recent weekday morning, swinging a bucket in a bid to catch fish and tadpoles swimming downstream.

His mother, Helen Cho, held a net as she watched from the shady pebble beach in this scenic stretch of Patapsco Valley State Park. The spot has become a daily destination for her family over the past year for cooling off in the water or hiking about a mile upstream to what they call the “shaky bridge.”

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The coronavirus pandemic pushed the Howard County family to discover Maryland’s state parks after it shuttered the private gym and swimming pool they usually visited in the summer. Cho, 46, said state parks will remain her preferred destination, even as coronavirus restrictions ease and other attractions reopen.

“This is much, much better,” Cho said. “It’s so much fun here.”

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Helen Cho and her son, Timothy Cho, 2, play in the Patapsco River on a Thursday at the Avalon Area of Patapsco Valley State Park. They live in Columbia and have visited the area frequently since July 2020.
Helen Cho and her son, Timothy Cho, 2, play in the Patapsco River on a Thursday at the Avalon Area of Patapsco Valley State Park. They live in Columbia and have visited the area frequently since July 2020. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

The family is hardly alone: Unprecedented crowds flocked to Maryland’s parks amid the pandemic, smashing visitor records and pushing many of the most popular areas beyond capacity on weekends and holidays. Cho said she keeps a close eye on the park service’s social media posts before driving the 15 minutes from their home in Columbia to make sure they aren’t turned away at the entrance.

“Weekends it’s crazy here, and the doors actually close around 10:30-ish, so I have to continually check Twitter,” Cho said. “We live close by and we’re early risers, so we have no problem. But even at 10 a.m., the line at the gate is really, really long.”

The surge of visitors hitting Maryland’s state parks forced rangers to shut the gates and turn away would-be parkgoers a record 292 times last year because crowds had filled the picnic grounds, trails, boat landings and cabins. Total visits to state parks jumped more than 45% in 2020.

But while the coronavirus pandemic — which scrapped vacation plans and forced other diversions like gyms, bars and theaters to close — certainly swelled the crowds, it’s hardly a new problem.

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Public lands were in the midst of boom times, in Maryland and across the country, even before pandemic restrictions drove interest in outdoor spaces to a fever pitch. Traffic into Maryland’s state parks grew remarkably in recent years, shooting from 10.3 million visitors in 2013 to nearly 14.9 million in 2019, a rate of growth that was already taxing the capacity of state’s most popular destinations and stretching the ability of rangers to manage the crowds.

Then, interest exploded last year during the pandemic, soaring to 21.5 million visitors.

Park service officials and outdoor advocates are thrilled to see more people enjoying the woods and beaches, but the demand creates a challenge: The preserved acreage of nature can’t grow fast enough to immediately accommodate it. Meanwhile, larger crowds put a bigger strain on park resources. There’s more wear on heavily trafficked trails, more litter around picnic pavilions and more potential human impact on nature.

And while crowds could ease a bit as other attractions reopen amid easing coronavirus restrictions, park officials and conservation advocates expect many of those who turned to the outdoors in the past year to keep coming back.

Sabrina Ochoa of Columbia and Caleb Barber of Hanover run in Patapsco Valley State Park on a recent Thursday.
Sabrina Ochoa of Columbia and Caleb Barber of Hanover run in Patapsco Valley State Park on a recent Thursday. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Caleb Barber and Sabrina Ochoa seldom headed to parks before the coronavirus shut down gyms and other options. But the couple, out for a morning trail run through the Patapsco Valley State Park, said their visits became part of their routine over the past year and they plan to keep coming.

“It’s the best way to stay motivated, get outside, instead of just going to restaurants or amusement parks,” said Barber, 21, of Hanover. “Just a good way to stay active and enjoy everything that’s around here.”

There are efforts afoot to grow parklands and improve access to hard-to-reach state-owned wilderness. But issues with timing and state funding mean building public lands hasn’t kept pace with rapidly rising public interest, leading Maryland officials to consider requiring reservations and other ways to manage crowds.

At the popular Falling Branch area of Rocks State Park in Harford County, where rangers regularly turn away a thousand cars on busy weekends, park officials launched an online reservation system.

Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina wasn’t sure how people might react — “most of us are used to making a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to the park” — but she’s heard mostly positive feedback from visitors who in the past endured lines and the possibility of being turned away after a long drive.

Reservations at other popular Maryland parks will likely roll out sometime next year, Settina said.

The state isn’t unique in confronting these issues. The National Park Service has spent years trying to manage growing crowds at famed destinations such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Acadia and Zion, touching off debate over proposals such as raising gate fees to limit the crowds. Fifteen national parks set visitor records last year despite temporary closures that shuttered many for months.

In Maryland, Settina said the state “can’t fit more people into our current parks.”

“We are not going to increase the capacity of our current parks. That’s not our primary strategy,” she said. “What we are in the process of doing all the time is expanding our existing state parks [by] buying more land and buying land to create new state parks.”

Growing the system is expensive and time-consuming, however. State funding for expanding public lands in Maryland has fluctuated over the years, despite a dedicated tax on real estate transfers meant to buy land for parks and conservation under Program Open Space.

But state lawmakers raided the fund’s coffers over the years to balance tight budgets until 2016, when the legislature passed reforms and helped shore it up with an influx of cash and a repayment plan for future transfers.

Ramping up funding for buying green space has taken several years, but this spring, state lawmakers included $305 million in funding for parks and conservation in the state budget, including more than $111 million for Program Open Space and $85 million for maintenance and infrastructure projects in existing parks.

The current hot real estate market could funnel more money into Program Open Space in the coming years as rising prices net bigger taxes, although Settina said she hasn’t seen an estimate on that.

Joel Dunn, who leads the Chesapeake Conservancy and co-chairs the public lands advocacy group Partners for Open Space, welcomed the investment in the new state budget. But Dunn said fluctuating funding in the past has posed challenges for acquiring land because the process usually involves years of coordination and planning between the state, nonprofit organizations and private philanthropists.

“I’m really happy with the appropriation we just received,” said Dunn, but “a more sustained commitment over the long term would be helpful in delivering more parks to address the capacity needs and interests of society.”

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Local parks have also acutely felt the strain of the pandemic crowds, said Joshua Hastings, a Democratic member of the Wicomico County Council and the program and policy director for Forever Maryland, a conservation advocacy group.

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“They were overrun and trashed and just overutilized,” Hastings said. “They were sometimes getting four times the users that they’d normally get, and that’s really hurt a lot of facilities.”

But Hastings, Dunn and Settina all see plenty of silver linings in the big crowds heading into nature during the pandemic if the exposure to nature converts more people into outdoor enthusiasts and conservation supporters.

Hastings said he’s seen the uptick in interest at local council meetings, with residents turning out to speak in favor of parks.

“Once I was exposed to nature, I was addicted to the outdoors,” said Dunn. “I think demand for outdoor resources and outdoor recreational opportunities is a really great thing, because my personal view is that when you experience something firsthand, you’re given the opportunity to love it, to really become passionate about it, and that’s how we build conservationists of the future.”

Expanding existing parks and building new ones is a continual process, Settina said, and several parks have opened in recent years or are now in the final stages of development, including Bohemia River State Park in Cecil County, a several-hundred-acre stretch of nature that will feature several miles of trails and kayaking when it fully opens to the public.

Although state park officials are loath to expand parking lots at crammed parks, Settina said they are working to expand access to a handful of state properties that have sat largely unvisited. Settina pointed to Palmer State Park in Harford County, a sizable slice of mature forest bisected by scenic Deer Creek. Despite being owned by the state for years, it had long lacked official public access.

“So, a couple of years ago, we designed and built with our youth conservation corps, primarily, a trail system,” Settina said, “and now the place is extremely popular. You can enjoy exercise in the woods, see some neat historic ruins and visit Deer Creek and see eagles and all kinds of bird life and other wildlife.”

Wills Mountain, a rugged and rocky expanse the state owns near Cumberland in Western Maryland, sees no visitors because the lone road to the mountaintop is privately owned.

“We are desperately trying to buy that,” Settina said.

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