“It’s All Uphill: State park benchmarks go wild amid pandemic,” TheBurg, February 2021.
It’s where LeAnn Martinez goes to find “a moment of sanity.” Dauphin County’s Memorial Lake State Park is where she connects to nature.
“I run around the lake, and it’s very peaceful, with a really cool bridge to run across,” said Martinez of Harrisburg.
Swatara State Park, located in Lebanon and Schuylkill counties, is another one of her go-to’s. As an endurance runner who regularly participates in 24- and 48-hour running events often held on trails, Martinez likes to train on both parks’ trail systems. The 2-mile loop around Memorial Lake is one she often runs continuously for hours at a time.
“You forget about the stress of your job—you know the world’s still there, but it’s a little reprieve,” Martinez said. “It’s like therapy.”
And amid a worldwide pandemic, she’s not alone. Community, state and national parks across the country are reporting surges in attendance.
Pennsylvania, with one of the largest state park systems in the country, as well as one of the few that offers free admission, shattered recreation records in 2020.
“In 2019, we had 304,670 total attendance at Memorial Lake. From January to Nov. 30 of 2020, we’re already at 421,435,” said Courtney Troutman, manager at both Memorial Lake and nearby Swatara State Parks.
Swatara, shaped by the forested land along both sides of the Swatara Creek, offers access to the Appalachian Trail, the hiking and biking-friendly Swatara Rail Trail, historic bridges, plus horseback riding. Park attendance stood at 194,735 in 2019. It soared to 309,511 during 11 months of 2020. That’s a 59% increase—even without December’s final figures.
“Since the start of addressing this pandemic, outdoor recreation is one of the only fun things people were allowed to do,” Troutman said. “People were cooped up in houses, and getting outdoors, enjoying public land was pretty much the only option.”
Surrounded by Fort Indiantown Gap, Memorial Lake offers hiking trails, boating, fishing and picnic facilities—described by Troutman as a “family-friendly park.”
Parking was often an issue at Memorial Lake, where there are three large parking lots totaling 400 spaces. Troutman said that park personnel had to devise an overflow parking area in a field.
The lake’s boat rental concessionaire sold out on multiple weekends, renting every single one of its canoes, kayaks, fishing and paddleboats to visitors.
“That was a record,” Troutman said. “And with boat launch permits, we noticed more inflatable kayaks this year. Visitors had to buy those because outdoor equipment [like hard shell kayaks] was hard to find on shelves during the pandemic.”
Total attendance at the Keystone State’s 121 parks rose from 35.8 million in 2019, to 45.2 million through November in 2020—that’s more than a 26% jump.
“We’re serving a mission-critical function in terms of COVID-19 response,” said David Sariano of the Bureau of State Parks, under the umbrella of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “It’s a challenge many people are facing, and they need an escape. It creates a situation where we’re adding to the public health by keeping the parks open.”
In central Pennsylvania, York County’s Codorus State Park attracted the biggest pandemic crowds—annual attendance hit 1.3 million through November.
And state park visitors aren’t just hiking, picnicking or boating for the day—they booked overnight stays in record numbers, too. Reservations at the state’s 6,800 campsites, cabins and picnic pavilions totaled more than 250,000 in 2020 (January through November)—a 47% increase over 2019.
What is the resulting impact on the parks, economically and ecologically?
“It’s been a challenge for us, in that we have unprecedented day use and overnight demands, but not a fully funded budget or staffed park system,” said Sariano. “We received our final budget in early December and have had staff cuts and less money for contracting and services. That’s our challenge on how we move forward, because in the current state of emergency, we’re providing an essential service, and we want to remain open and provide service at a high level.”
The state parks’ current budget is $108.3 million, a reduction from last year’s $114.4 million.
Yet, “the total [annual] contribution in visitor spending to the state economy is $1.145 billion… and in 2020 it would have been way up from that,” said Sariano.
Negative impact on the state’s natural resources, including wildlife, may be harder to measure. Troutman said that garbage cans occasionally overflowed at Memorial Lake and Swatara, due to the combination of visitor increases and staffing hiccups amid COVID-19. Volunteers couldn’t gather at times to keep park trails and waterways cleared.
She predicts another banner year for state park visitation in 2021 and remains optimistic that, along with visitor increases, there will be increased public appreciation for state parks.
“I think the trends will continue,” Troutman said. “This past year has been an important one for state parks because it’s shown the importance of public lands and how they impact everyone’s lives—impacting physical and mental health.”
For more information on Pennsylvania’s state parks, see www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks.