Money to help state parks; $9 million from surplus in budget will fund 3-year repair program; Project biggest in decades; Visitors' complaints prompt plan to improve trails, facilities


Dipping into Maryland's budget surplus, Gov. Parris N. Glendening will announce today a three-year, $9 million refurbishment program for state parks, the most significant such effort in decades, officials say.

The state will repair parking lots, 1,000 trails and 300 miles of roads, and will replace 30 playgrounds at Maryland parks, officials at the Department of Natural Resources said.

"The last time there was any significant maintenance of the parks was in the early 1960s," said Glendening, who is expected to announce the plan at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County.

Like other state and national park systems, Maryland's has been struggling to meet increasing demands after budget cuts in the 1980s, said Susan O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the DNR.

"We have all these people coming to parks, which we love," O'Brien said. "However, funding hasn't increased to accommodate the new users."

Glendening said he decided to increase spending for the state's parks because of "a lot" of complaints from users -- from Marylanders and from out-of-state visitors -- about the condition of facilities.

"I checked, and they are correct," Glendening said. "If it's dirty with leaking plumbing, or it's not working, that can ruin your visit to a park."

"It's just common sense to protect your investment," he said.

Local environmentalists also have criticized the condition of many of Maryland's parks in recent years. Heavy use and trash have left even the deepest woods and trails in disrepair, they say.

"Parks tend to be the last thing on everybody's priority list," said Terry J. Harris, president of the Clean Up Coalition.

"This sounds like something above and beyond the usual, and it's nice to see that the parks may finally get some of the attention they need."

Last year, more than 10 million people visited Maryland's 47 state parks and six state forests, officials said.

DNR's forest and park service manages more than 260,000 acres and 1,600 buildings.

The $9 million over three years will supplement the State Forest and Park Service's budget, which is $34.8 million this year. In addition, the state will spend $5.6 million this year on capital improvements in parks and wilderness areas, and $1.7 million for critical maintenance projects such as bridge repairs.

"I had declared the year 2000 as the year of the parks and [am] committed to making them top-notch," Glendening said.

The program will be funded from Maryland's budget surplus, which was $319 million as of July 1, the most recent date for such figures.

In the Baltimore area, Patapsco Valley State Park and Gunpowder Falls State Park will get playgrounds that can accommodate children with disabilities, and repaved roads and parking lots.

Across the state, workers will clear trails and add bilingual signs. "Right now, we need a lot of improvements in trailblazing," O'Brien said.

Officials also will renovate buildings, upgrade telecommunications equipment, install picnic tables, grills and fire rings, and upgrade facilities to accommodate the disabled.

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is expected to attend the announcement to promote Maryland's progress in preserving open space and to prod Congress to approve President Clinton's $1 billion Lands Legacy program.

The program, which would allow federal, state and local governments to buy open space, has stalled in Congress.

"We need to light a fire under this Congress," Babbitt said. "There are really wonderful grass-roots efforts around the country -- and nowhere more impressively than in Maryland -- that it's time for some federal support for these initiatives."

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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