Volunteers help parks work toward reopening date


ANNAPOLIS -- A couple of weeks ago, at Gambrill State Park north of Frederick, park rangers from the region were called in to start a search for the occupant or occupants of a car that had been left in a parking area after closing hours.

After an all-night search, one unhappy camper was found safe.

In general, it was not an unusual scenario in Maryland parks and forests. That the search was initiated by a volunteer worker making closing rounds because the ranger was stationed elsewhere that evening was unusual.

And in this case, at least, it showed that a Maryland Forest and Parks Service volunteer program is working well at Gambrill, one of 12 state parks closed for six months starting on Jan. 1 because of the budget squeeze.

Now, more than a week since it completed a series of public meetings to measure community interest in reopening the parks, the FPS is looking for more good men and women who have the time and inclination to assist in the parks.

If they can find them, there is a good possibility that perhaps half of the parks will open by Memorial Day.

"The general idea on these parks is that we are doing our best to shoot for a Memorial Day opening, and we are getting some fine help from folks in the surrounding communities," said James W. Dunmyer, Department of Natural Resources assistant secretary for public lands. "That process itself involves us working with whatever community group is interested . . . and helping them put the plan together. We provide some assistance from the standpoint of what needs to be done and orientation for the volunteers."

Once a plan is formalized, the FPS takes the proposal to GovWilliam Donald Schaefer, who makes the ultimate decision on whether the parks may be reopened.

"Every situation is different. Every one has a uniqueness,Dunmyer said. "So there is no set way we are going to do this. We're not closing our minds to any options. For example, at Gambrill we have very strong reaction from the community there. But even they had the normal first reaction, which was: How can you close my park?"

The parks were closed by order of the governor after the FPrecommended which operations might be suspended with the least inconvenience to the surrounding communities. The closure of the 12 parks achieved a net budgetary savings of $178,000 out of $23 million, said Rick Barton, director of state forests and parks.

"These are all nice parks, in their own right," Barton said. "But none of them is a premier park, so to speak. . . . They are not our leading attendance parks, and they are not our leading attractions. They are not the Sandy Points and the Gunpowders and the Assateagues and the Rocky Gaps."

For example, at Gambrill last year there were 385,221 registered visitors. At Assateague there were almost 100,000 fewer visitors (290,761).

"But last year when we looked at the amount of camping visitors [at Gambrill], their numbers were, I think, 9,000," Barton said. "What happens at Gambrill is that there are a couple of roadside pull-offs and a couple of overlooks that people use as they drive through on a county road. It is not a false attendance figure. . . . But they don't come in and use the restrooms, they don't use the day facilities, they don't use the campgrounds."

So, rather than going by attendance figures alone in figuring the state parks that could be closed, Barton said, the FPS also looked at what facilities were provided by more than one park in certain regions and tried to determine what staff members might be used to bolster manpower elsewhere within the region.

"We also tried to spread it across the state," Barton said, "so that no one region bore an unfair load."

In the Appalachian Region, roughly from Frederick west, five of 19 parks and forests were closed.

In the Piedmont Region, roughly from Frederick east to I-95, Susquehanna State Park, Morgan Run and the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park were closed. There are six state parks in the region.

In the Coastal Plain Region, roughly from I-95 east to the Atlantic Ocean, four of 23 parks and forests were closed.

Not all of the 12 parks have been locked up tight, simply because not all can be.

"Janes Island is an example of a park that has basically onentrance, and the gate is closed . . ." Barton said. "Susquehanna is a park that has multi-access points, and we haven't closed off all the access.

"We are telling people it is closed, but we aren't patrolling to kick people out."

When necessary, Barton said, people are being asked to leave park structures or facilities that may be targets of vandalism and closed camping grounds are being kept empty.

As a result of the closings, other state parks have benefited.

"It [the $178,000 savings] doesn't sound like a ton of money," Barton said, "But other savings came from the staffs of these parks going elsewhere to help, to a park nearby in some cases. In cases like Tuckahoe, some of the staff went to Sandy Point, and they are helping them do construction projects and other things. That is hard to put a dollar value on."

The availability of a movable staff helps offset approximately 35 jobs that are vacant as the result of a hiring freeze. Barton estimates there are 350 staffers remaining for the 47 state parks and forests.

The participation of volunteer staffs will be the key to reopening the parks by July or before, Barton said.

"Thanks to volunteers, Gambrill is opening in phases right now," Barton said. "Janes Island, those folks have a really well organized volunteer effort, and I would say they are going to carry out a similar function as at Gambrill.

"Susquehanna, Tuckahoe and Dans Mountain all have beginnings of real good volunteer efforts, and I have a lot of hope for Morgan Run, also. New Germany has a couple of individuals who are doing much of the same.

The places where there has not been an outpouring of support, Barton said, are Gathland, Washington Monument, Cedarville, Calvert Cliffs and the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park.

"We're not asking these folks to take on more than they can handle," Dunmyer said. "We are not asking them to be law enforcement officers, we are not asking them to collect money.

"We are asking them to get in there and treat it like it is their neighborhood and help us with some of the manpower-intensive things like cutting the grass and cleaning up the park."

The fiscal budget for 1992, Dunmyer said, should include full funding for all state parks.

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