ANNAPOLIS – Maryland State Parks are experiencing crumbling infrastructure, shuttered visitor’s centers and rising crime after recent funding cuts, but could become one of the top systems in the country with just a small funding increase.
That was the conclusion of a report to lawmakers last week by the Department of Natural Resources, which outlined a plan to get Maryland’s “once great state parks system” back to its former status as a national model, said Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin.
The report called for increasing the park system’s operating budget to $51 million over the next four years from a current budget just below $35 million. Support for state parks fell by about 50 percent from 2002 to 2006, forcing the parks to rely more and more on revenue from rising entrance fees to cover costs.
While financial support was falling, park popularity was rising. Attendance at Maryland’s 49 state parks is at an all-time high of almost 12 million visitors a year, compared to 8 million in 1990.
But the number of park staff has declined steadily. There are now 55,000 visitors for each full-time park staff member, compared with about 35,000 in 2000. In many parks, unpaid volunteers have stepped in to keep services available.
“Volunteers are running our state parks, something they didn’t bargain for when they started years ago,” Griffin told the House Environmental Matters Committee on Wednesday.
Don Domain, who volunteers at several Baltimore County parks, said that in some parks, visitor’s centers once operating for most of the week are manned only by volunteers for a few weekend hours.
When Maryland’s median household income the highest in the nation, the lack of support for parks is an embarrassment, said Tim Casey of Friends of Maryland State Parks. Because the financial commitment relatively small, Marylanders “need to rise to the occasion,” he said.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s revenue package, which the General Assembly is now reviewing, proposes $5 million in additional state park funding.
“Marylanders are increasingly paying more and getting less” in their state parks, Griffin said. Maryland has the highest park entrance fees in the country, he said, while services like visitor’s centers and camping loops are shutting down.
For example, Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis charges $5 per person, potentially turning away working-class families who cannot pay $25 for a day at the beach, advocates said.
Col. George Johnson, superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said that a reduction in the number of officers is leading to a crime increase. The Natural Resources Police, which merged with the state park police in 2005, has 236 officers now, compared to 451 officers in both forces in 1991.
With visitors up and patrols reduced, park crimes including arson, drug activity and gangs are rising. Officers are also getting complaints from watermen who say renegades are breaking catch limits, Johnson said.
“Our mission is to protect, control and care for 17,000 miles of waterways, a half-million acres of state land and now 49 state parks,” Johnson said. “With 236 people, it’s difficult to keep up with.”
In the report, park rangers who quit the system complained of being assigned as security guards without proper training, as well as long hours, low pay and menial labor.
A report by the Maryland Office of Tourism said that visitors to state park campgrounds spent more than $100 million in Maryland in 2004.
Because parks provide so many benefits, including users pumping millions into the economy, reducing funding does not make sense, Casey said.
“You have the goose that lays the golden egg and you keep starving it,” he said.