Demographic shift causes state parks to adapt

When an approaching thunderstorm threatens swimmers at Greenbrier State Park, lifeguards reach for an iPod, scroll through the menu and press play.

"La tormenta se aproxima," says the recording amplified by the loud speaker system. "Todo el mundo salga del agua."

With that, hundreds of people move toward shore.

The staff at Maryland's state parks, destination for 11 million visitors last year, is learning to adapt to a rapidly growing and enthusiastic clientele: Hispanic families.

They come early, stay until closing and are repeat customers, say state park officials.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the largest spike in the last decade was in the state's Hispanic population, which more than doubled to 470,632. Roughly one in 12 Marylanders is Hispanic.

And while an economic impact study last year by the Department of Business and Economic Development showed that just 2 percent of day-use visitors were Hispanic, park officials say that paints an incomplete picture. Hispanic families concentrate in a handful of waterfront parks near the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

For example, at Greenbrier in Washington County and Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis, as many as 80 percent of the picnickers and swimmers are Hispanic, officials at the two sites say. Day trippers also favor Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County and the Hammerman area of Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County. When those fill on busy summer weekends, families drive to Cunningham Falls north of Frederick or Point Lookout in St. Mary's County.

"This isn't just a Greenbrier or a Sandy Point story. It's spreading and becoming a Maryland story," says Nita Settina, superintendent of the state's 66 parks. "They want to do all the outdoors things they did in their native country in their new home. It's up to us to make them feel welcome."

To meet the needs of the Hispanic visitors, parks have added translators, posted bilingual signs and stocked park stores with ethnic foods. Staffs are getting cultural training and will be taught basic Spanish commands and phrases before next season to help ease the communications barrier.

Other ethnic groups have gravitated to specific parks, mostly by word of mouth: Koreans at Point Lookout, Russians at Cunningham Falls and Africans at Patapsco Valley, just south of Baltimore. That has required additional adjustments by park staff, says Ranger Jen Cline of the Maryland Park Service Training Division.

Cline says on Memorial Day weekend, she encountered some African men with a blow torch at a Patapsco Valley pavilion.

When questioned, the men told Cline, "We have to sear the goats."

Not knowing whether park rules prohibited the searing of goats with a blow torch before barbecuing, but deciding it might be a safety hazard in a full park, Cline asked if they could finish up quickly and put it away. Everyone was satisfied.

"You just have to put yourselves in your guests' shoes," Cline tells her trainees.

That includes making allowances, when possible, for lakeside baptisms and seasonal religious celebrations, too.

A survey of 500 Greenbrier visitors showed the predominant countries of origin are: El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. They drive one or two hours to get there, stay an average of 8 hours and visit as many as a half dozen times a season.

The new visitors have prompted a rethinking of park procedures and designs that are 30 to 40 years old, says Lt. Tammy McCorkle, who has been at Greenbrier for 11 seasons. For example, people begin lining up at 3 a.m. to get in and secure one of the prime shaded picnic tables near the water. By 8, the line backs up nearly two miles on U.S. 40, forcing staff to open early to alleviate a traffic safety hazard.

Gone are the days when one vehicle with four or five family members was the standard. Now, an informal survey shows, the average group size is 15 people "who stay until closing," McCorkle says. "That means the traditional picnic pad, with one table and one grill, is useless to our visitors, a poor design. You have to have room for four tables."

In another concession to change, park managers had to replace half of Greenbrier's 150 grills this year due to metal fatigue brought on by dawn-to-dusk use.

The visitors have noticed the effort.

"I recommend this park to all my friends and I bring people from everywhere," says Dilia Giron, a manager of a cell phone store in Beltsville. "They make you feel welcome here. Sometimes I tell my mother we should try another park, but she says , 'No, no, no. This is fine. This is ours.'"

Luis Perez, a truck driver from Silver Spring, says state parks are clean and quiet, safe places to allow urban children to run and play.

"It's like being at home. When you feel comfortable, you're going to be happy," he says.

At Greenbrier, 32 common park announcements have been downloaded to an iPod, everything from a storm warning to a missing-child report to a head's up that someone left their car headlights on. The announcements were recorded by Christina Dalton, 22, a student at UMBC whose mother is from Guatemala.

A park visitor as a child, Dalton was startled two years ago during a visit by the demographic shift. She emailed the park managers about the need for a translator and was hired as part of the summer staff.

Dalton arrives for work in shorts and a tan Greenbrier polo shirt, a small radio clipped to her belt. The understated uniform is in deliberate contrast to the full police uniform worn by rangers.

After unlocking the new nature center — "La Casita de Naturaleza" — she begins her rounds. Dalton moves easily among the families cooking breakfast and stringing multi-colored hammocks from the willow oaks, answering questions and explaining park rules, admiring the spread of food and playfully teasing the children.

She calls her job, "helping people understand each other who don't understand each other." And Dalton considers that rewarding.

"I love that moment when I explain something to both people in a situation and see their faces light up when they get it," she says.

The same thing happens at Sandy Point, where Nuria Velasquez, a Baltimore County school secretary, helps the staff communicate with patrons.

On Memorial Day weekend, when the park was filled to capacity and turning people away, Velasquez was almost overwhelmed as she directed traffic and translated for police officers.

"I've never seen so many people but in a stadium," she says. When a car full of Spanish-speaking people broke down on the park access road, creating gridlock, Velasquez stepped in to cool tempers and get people to push the vehicle onto the grass.

She also explains state fishing and crabbing regulations and reminds families to recycle and pack out their trash.

"I know I make a difference," says Velasquez. "With me, the Latinos have a voice."

All of this attention has caused some bad feelings. The blow back against the influx of Hispanic families, "can be pretty ugly," Settina acknowledges.

After Memorial Day, Greenbrier took a call from an angry woman who demanded to know why the staff allowed "those people" in on an American holiday. Sandy Point managers were criticized on a popular fishing website for repairing a stone jetty "for the illegals." And online discussions about best camping and picnicking choices sometimes veer into discussions about whether some of Greenbrier's Hispanic visitors might be part of the violent gang, MS13.

"It's a challenge for our staff, but there is no wink-wink, nod-nod when it comes to intolerance," Settina says. "When people come to a state park, they're a state park visitor and nothing else. Our policy is not to just tolerate, it's to celebrate cultural values."

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