It took a pandemic to push people out.
In the early days of COVID-19, with gyms, pools, basketball courts, and hockey rinks closed, Massachusetts residents built hiking boots and made for woods like never before.
“Six months ago, you were walking down the trails and seeing one or two people,” David Alden St. said. In the summer of 2020, people began to cautiously venture outdoors, said Pierre of the Beverly Open Space Committee. “Now there are days when you see a lot of people on the trails. People were looking for a way to get outdoors. That’s what the trails are for.”
Open spaces in Essex county have seen usage increase by more than 200% during the pandemic. Two years later, the state’s outdoor spaces are still as popular as ever.
“The exponential increase in park visits did not diminish when pandemic conditions eased,” a group of state and local environmental and outdoor advocacy groups wrote in a letter to the incoming administration of Governor-elect Maura Healy. “People have realized, many for the first time, that they have this historical, publicly funded gem in their midst and are still flocking to it in droves.”
Unfortunately, visitors now find many of the parks and open spaces managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation suffering from neglect and years of inattention. That must change. To be sure, a country flush with cash could reinvest in one of its greatest resources.
The need is real.
According to the message of the group, which has nearly 50 member organizations, “Visitors to state parks rarely encounter rangers, and often find closed facilities, crumbling infrastructure, and filthy bathrooms.” Enforcement of park rules to ensure visitor safety and resource protection is virtually non-existent. Also at risk is the ability of our parks to support our physical and mental well-being, promote environmental justice, mitigate floods and urban heat islands, enhance climate resilience, and harbor significant natural resources and biodiversity.”
Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, Halibut Point State Park in Rockport and Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover are among DCR properties north of Boston.
Conservation groups have a series of recommendations aimed at restoring open spaces to their former glory. between them:
Appoint a DCR Commissioner with “experience, vision and leadership skills.” The department has suffered from discontinuity with six commissioners in the last eight years.
Increase the department’s operating budget by $10 million annually over the next decade to bring spending in line with early 2000s levels. The investment has been behind for years. A government report released late last year showed that DCR, which is responsible for nearly 500,000 acres of forests, beaches and parks, has lost 300 full-time employees — nearly a quarter of its staff — since 2009.
Use American Recovery Plan Act funding to help eliminate nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance throughout the park system. It would be a wise investment. State parks attract more than 26 million visitors annually. Outdoor recreation is supported by approximately $10.5 billion in gross state revenue, 113,800 jobs, and $5.5 billion in compensation, making outdoor recreation nearly as large as the state’s transportation and warehousing sector. However, Massachusetts’ investment in its park system consistently ranks among the lowest of the fifty states.
“The pandemic has proven beyond reasonable doubt that our gardens are essential to our physical and mental well-being,” said Doug Pizzey, executive director of the Massachusetts Conservation Vote. “It has been a long time since they were treated this way.”
We agree and feel the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration has a rare opportunity to restore order to its former splendor.