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People want to use parks more than ever during the pandemic, but they get too crowded | COMMENTARY

The basketball rims and beach volleyball net were removed at Centennial Park in Ellicott City to prevent people from crowding the park and possibly spreading COVID-19.
The basketball rims and beach volleyball net were removed at Centennial Park in Ellicott City to prevent people from crowding the park and possibly spreading COVID-19. (Brent Kennedy)

We have all seen the pictures and headlines: park gates locked to stem overcrowding and the risk of spreading COVID-19.

In Howard County, officials closed the gates to Centennial Park early on after finding over 200 people on and around a playground. Baltimore City removed swings to keep the crowds down. Earlier this month, as Marylanders enjoyed one of the first sunny and warm days, Patapsco’s Avalon area had to shut its gates due to overcrowding.

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As we all look for ways to take care of our mental and physical well-being during these stressful times, getting outside should be an option. But unfortunately, our parks became inundated and restrictions were placed to keep people out.

Overcrowding of our local and national parks is not something new. Public lands and our national park system have been facing a crisis of appeal for years. National park visitation in 2019 exceeded 300 million visits for the fifth consecutive year, which is nearly equal to the entire U.S. population. Every summer, Patapsco Valley State Park’s most popular entrances reach capacity, requiring park gates to close.

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This pandemic has inadvertently cast a more intense light on the situation. The best way to begin to remedy this overcrowding, now and as before, is to fully fund America’s best outdoor ally, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund is our most important program for expanding outdoor opportunities for everyone. It funds everything from wilderness areas to local ballparks, protecting and improving access to irreplaceable landscapes and cultural heritage sites. The program has funded many of our beloved parks here in Maryland, helping to protect the Patuxent Research Center and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, state parks like Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, Deep Creek Lake State Park, and local parks like Byron Memorial Park in Williamsport and the Thurmont Community Park.

Congress was on the way to enacting key public land enhancements and protections just before COVID-19 cases were beginning to soar, including fully funding the conservation fund at $900 million annually with the Great American Outdoors Act. We need Congress to follow through and pass this legislation so we can fund and create the better outdoor experience for which Americans, and Marylanders, are clamoring.

As we talk more and more about when we can open again, one travel industry pundit has predicted that post-COVID-19 travel plans will likely focus on experiences close to home. Americans may be wary of international or long-distance travel, and our parks will see unprecedented visitation, creating its own set of new problems. Travelers may prefer rural and outdoor experiences as they continue to maintain social distance from others.

When the floodgates open, will our parks be ready? The answer is unfortunately “no” unless we increase investments in our outdoor infrastructure now. We need to boost access to public spaces and create new ones as an essential part of our economic recovery. We need to make investments today, so we have the space tomorrow.

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If we do not fund our parks now, the treasured experiences we are seeking will become frustrating ordeals, with long lines of cars to enter parks, inadequate parking, limited or no shuttle service and crowds preventing a peaceful trail experience.

Remedying this is doable, but we need to start planning and funding the solutions now. It is imperative that Congress prioritize full funding for the conservation fund in the upcoming stimulus packages.

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Our national, state, and local parks are the heart of our nation’s health and well-being. For all of us, today and tomorrow, we need to provide our parks with adequate funding.

Emily Ranson (eranson@cleanwater.org) is the Maryland State Director of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund.

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