Study finds Md.'s parks, after deep cuts in staff and services in recent years, need an infusion

The Baltimore Sun

At 84, Steve Takos can't volunteer at North Point State Park as often as he used to. But it might not matter much longer. The visitor center that bears his name could be closed soon.

Maryland's 49 state parks are in "a state of crisis" because of declining funding and manpower, and require an immediate infusion of both, a new study concludes.

The 30-page report, authorized by the General Assembly and paid for by a private advocacy foundation, paints a grim picture of the parks system that stretches from Deep Creek Lake east to Assateague State Park. It predicts deep cuts in services - such as lifeguards at beaches and concessions at campgrounds - and closure of education programs and visitor centers.

The report echoes warnings issued last year by the Ehrlich administration transition team and in February during General Assembly budget briefings.

"I don't think anyone was surprised by the findings," said Kristin Saunders Evans, assistant secretary of the Department of Natural Resources who oversees parks. "We're trying to the best of our ability and resources, but in some instances we've let our stakeholders down."

The report lays out a six-year, $284 million rebuilding program to reduce the maintenance backlog, restore the level of services and training and enhance trails and waterway access.

As a start, Gov. Martin O'Malley's revenue package, being considered by the General Assembly, includes a $5 million increase in funding for the parks.

Tim Casey, president of Friends of Maryland State Forests and Parks, said that restoring parks is more than just a recreational consideration. The state Department of Business and Economic Development estimates that visitors to state parks and campgrounds each year spend more than $139 million and generate $13.5 million in tax revenue.

"If you did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, you can see the economic benefit of the parks. Even if you don't give a hoot about parks, you should care about them as an economic engine," Casey said.

For Takos, who holds the distinction of being one of the longest-serving state parks volunteers, the report reinforces what he has seen at North Point, the 1,320-acre Baltimore County park that bills itself as "a little piece of heaven on the Chesapeake Bay."

"We've lost all the rangers and the teaching programs with them," said Takos, who became a volunteer ranger in 1987. "Outreach to schools hasn't been done in three years and we don't have the staff to support school visits. We're not the only park to give up that stuff."

On opening day of trout season, the gates at Patapsco Valley State Park are staffed by volunteers. At Green Ridge State Forest, one seasonal employee takes entrance fees and polices ATV traffic using the off-road trail. Staff at Gunpowder Falls State Park Hammerman Area beach complain that the merger transforming park rangers into Natural Resources Police officers has turned them into untrained security guards.

In 1990, the state had 440 officers between the two law enforcement agencies. Three years after the Ehrlich administration-imposed merger to beef up NRP, there are 270 officers to cover 449,000 acres and 17,000 miles of waterways.

State parks attract about 12 million visitors annually despite having among the highest user fees in the country, the report says. General funds from the state budget have dropped from $28.9 million in 2002 to $14 million. The number of full-time employees has declined 25 percent over the same period.

Increased use and declining manpower means Maryland state parks have one full-time employee for every 67,796 visitors, the report said. The average at national parks is 1 employee for every 10,000 visitors; at state parks systems of comparable size, the ratio is 1 to 30,000.

When emergencies occur, such as Tropical Storm Ernesto, which caused considerable damage along the Mid-Atlantic last year, the parks system lacks the money to repair buildings, fishing piers and sand dunes. It also loses entrance fees when visitors go elsewhere. And, by state law, DNR must share the gate revenue with the counties where parks are located in lieu of property taxes.

Eric Schwaab, DNR's deputy secretary, said the problem began more than 15 years ago, when inadequate funding in the state budget forced the agency to draw down its reserve fund.

"We cut budgets in 1992, we cut budgets in 1996. We didn't invest at a level commensurate with use. We have no cushion left," said Schwaab, who began his career as a park ranger and Natural Resources Police officer. "People want clean, safe, functioning state parks as an element of their quality of life. Well, we have to pay for it."

But even the study required outside funding. The Friends of Maryland State Forests and Parks, a nonprofit group, secured a $17,000 grant from the Annapolis-based Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment.

Support groups, such as Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park, try to fill budget gaps with fundraisers and in-kind donations. Northrup Grumman employees put a new roof on a picnic shelter and Harkins Builders paved the parking lot, repaired the visitor center and installed an information kiosk.

"I think volunteerism is great, but there are basic things that should be provided by the operating agency or things will go downhill," said Paul Farragut, president of the Patapsco group.

Casey said he hopes the next fiscal year will be the "turning point" for state parks.

But Takos isn't so sure.

"Since '03 - Isabel - we lost a great fishing pier. I've complained about it and I've fought about it with our state senators. One of them told me the repair money was in the '06 budget," Takos said. "Well, '06 is gone, '07 is gone and '08 is slipping away. The report is a good framework, but the framework needs nails - money - the nails we need to rebuild."

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