Blue Ribbon Panel: State Parks Should Expand Capacity, Advance Equity

The State Park Investment Commission’s final report outlines 40 recommendations to enhance capacity and equity. Their far-reaching suggestions encompass capital and operating funding, substantial staffing enhancements, and local government coordination.

Background

In response to the pandemic, attendance at Maryland’s state parks swelled. Families were seeking a safe refuge that offered a chance to leave their living rooms and a change of scenery. Demand for public spaces surged, causing many state parks to limit access — and even turn away Marylanders. Many residents felt locked out of resources that their tax dollars helped finance.

In response to this pandemic-related crisis, the presiding officers of the General Assembly jointly appointed members to the State Park Investment Commission to research the issue and develop recommendations for enhancing capacity and equity at state parks. 

The commission was chaired by former Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening and co-chaired by Senator Sarah Elfreth and Delegate Eric Luedtke. The appointment of a former governor and two leading members of the General Assembly highlights how seriously leaders in Annapolis are taking this issue. The commission conducted its work from September – December and released recommendations later in December.

Recommendations

The commission released 40 recommendations centered around six categories; capacity, maintenance, staffing, funding, equity, and climate change. The report calls for increasing investment, further coordination between state and local park systems, modifications to internal DNR procedures, and boosting public transit options to parks. Below is a summary of the recommendations under each category. 

Capacity

  • The report highlights several improvements that can boost capacity limits at state parks. The most prominent recommendation would be the expansion of parks, either by further developing current sites or establishing new ones. Park data shows a significant increase in demand for water-based recreational opportunities.
  • Aside from expansion, the report calls the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to better coordinate with local governments when integrating various parks. This effort includes updated messaging and using new technologies to meld parks owned by different government entities.
  • Other proposed capacity solutions include redesignating state land into the state parks system and allowing public access onto private lands.

Maintenance

  • DNR should allocate more resources into its maintenance efforts. This includes the need to prioritize the use of state and federal funds to complete current critical projects, expand the number of staff in engineering and construction positions, develop a system for tracking park assets, and a one-time increase in special project funding to grow parking at high volume sites.
  • The report also noted that there should be some amendments to the procurement process, primarily increasing the allowed amount of in-house projects from $50,000 to $100,000 and shifting some capital development responsibilities to the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Staffing

  • Staffing is one of the most considerable challenges facing DNR. Recommended staffing should include the addition of 100 full-time positions over the next two fiscal years, and staffing needs to be a ratio of 1:30,000 employee to visitor ratio. Additionally, the department needs to develop a base of volunteers to help perform appropriate park functions.
  • The department should adjust its hiring and retention practices. There needs to be a focus on hiring workers faster, increasing the number of bilingual employees, targeting more persons of color in its recruitment efforts, establishing a pipeline of next-generation employees through various community relationships (i.e., youth groups, universities, etc.), as well as improving employee compensation and classifications.

Funding

  • Similar to many county parks departments, DNR has struggled to maintain an adequate level of service ever since their Program Open Space funds were cut roughly a decade and a half ago. Funding due to be repaid should be advanced, the General Assembly needs to establish a more stable and permanent mechanism for funding in the future, and there must be additional investment cultural resource areas.

Equity

  • Transportation and access are the most significant barriers to equity in Maryland’s state park systems. To address transportation, the report highlights implementing a series of pilot programs between DNR, the Maryland Department of Transportation, and other entities to test different public transit solutions; as well as improving bicycle, sidewalk, and trail access.
  • To address accessibility, DNR should adopt universal design principles in its programming and amenities.

Climate Change

  • The commission’s final recommendations addressed the challenges of climate change on maintaining the state’s park system. To best tackle this persistent threat head on the report recommends: adopt a 30×30 goal to conserve at least 30% of Maryland’s land and waters by 2030, ensure that there is adequate funding to allow for the use of green technology and sustainable practices, create a reforestry program targeted at underserved areas.

What next?

With the 2022 legislative session is quickly approaching, it can be expected that state parks funding will be a hot topic. One of the first questions that state legislators will need to address is how to spend both the budget surplus and the federal infrastructure money. Considering that the State Park Investment Commission had several high-profile appointees, it can reasonably be expected that many of the recommendations presented in this report will be adopted.

While the General Assembly debates these points in the coming weeks, it is essential to underline that county Program Open Space funding was also cut and that county parks serve the same constituents. Throughout the report, there are mentions of coordination between state and local governments. If leaders in Annapolis are serious about improving the state of Maryland’s parks, then any solution needs to include adequate consideration for local parks departments as well.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for coverage on any action the General Assembly takes on this issue.

Read the full report here.

Prior coverage:

State Park Leaders Echo Concerns Presented by MACo and Others

MACo & Others Testify On State Park Concerns

Parks Commission Kicks Off, Local Gov’ts to Testify at Next Meeting

Legislative Leaders Announce State Park Investment Commission

House Speaker and Senate President Announce State Park Investment Commission

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