State officers report folks proceed to seek out refuge from COVID within the outdoor

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While the COVID pandemic was devastating and deadly, it was not without its silver lining.

When almost everything shut down to protect themselves from the highly contagious disease that spread in the spring of 2020, people started looking for activities. They needed ways to chat, sure to have some fun.

The great outdoors was a refuge.

Millions flocked to the relative safety of outdoor activities, where fresh air and plenty of space for social distancing provided a safe haven. Activities such as hiking, fishing, hunting, and playing golf boomed in 2020, with attendance skyrocketing in Pennsylvania and Berks Counties.

And 2021? According to officials from the outdoor leisure community, the bubble has not yet burst.

During a hearing on Wednesday, these officials told members of the House Game & Fisheries and Tourism & Recreational Development Committees that participation in outdoor activities remained high in Pennsylvania despite the reopening of shops and restaurants, cinemas and other indoor entertainment venues is. Not quite 2020 numbers, but still well above average.

And Berks officials say that’s exactly what they’re seeing here.

The increased numbers do not appear to be an anomaly. Both state and local officials said they expect the increasing popularity of outdoor recreational activities to continue for the foreseeable future.

That means outdoor recreation sites need additional support to meet demand.

“This pandemic has really brought the Pennsylvanian life back on a massive scale,” Cindy Adams Dunn, Secretary of the Department for Conservation and Natural Resources, told state lawmakers. “They poured out into the open in record numbers across the state. It was wonderful.”

Dunn said there were nearly 47 million individual visits to the state park system in 2020 – an increase of about 27% over the previous year. And these numbers are still high today.

“The number of visits to our state parks is in the high range above anything we saw before the pandemic,” she said. “People have rediscovered nature and it seems they are sticking to it.”

The same in Berks

That certainly seems to be the case in Berks County, where officials from French Creek State Park and the Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center say they were quite busy during the pandemic.

BEN HASTY – READING EAGLE,

James Wassell (READING Eagle)

James Wassell, manager of French Creek, said the number of visitors to the park increased by around 50 to 60% year over year in 2020. In 2021, the situation has only slowed slightly so far, the number of visitors is still between 25 and 30% above 2019.

“I think a lot of people came to the parks for one reason or another during the pandemic and realized what was right in their backyard,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “They rediscovered something they might not even know was 20 minutes away from their own home. And that was great to see. “

Wassell said he expected the numbers to stay high for some time. Lots of people have bought things like camping gear, mountain bikes, or kayaks and probably won’t just throw them aside.

Evidence of his prediction can be found in the French Creek Camping Reservation Book.

“You can’t get a campsite on French Creek right now unless you want to come on a Wednesday,” he said. “We are fully booked until autumn and quickly fill up for next year.”

Brent Erb, manager of Nolde Forest, has seen a similar increase in estimated visits. He reported that the park’s visitor numbers in 2020 were up nearly 60% year over year. And this year’s visits are well on their way to being nearly 30% above 2019.

“It was exciting to see how many families and individuals turn out and that outdoor activities are a priority for so many families and individuals,” he said. “People have rediscovered nature. People have recognized the importance of spending time in nature, both for their physical and mental health. “

Brent Erb (BEN HASTY – READING EAGLE)

Erb said he believes the trend will continue for years to come, with many pandemic visitors discovering or rediscovering the joys of outdoor recreation.

“We pride ourselves on being able to serve people as a place to relax, to spend time in nature, to observe nature, to maybe find some clarity in their own life that would otherwise be difficult to find if you were is locked in your house, ”he said. “We are all very proud that we were able to come into contact with people.”

It doesn’t hurt that places like the Noldewald are easy on the wallet. Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that offer free entry to state parks for all.

While Erb said he was excited about the increased use of Nolde Forrest, it didn’t come without its challenges. He said there were some growing issues with dealing with larger visitor numbers as staff and budget numbers had not increased as well, but additional tasks such as new cleaning protocols were being introduced.

The park, which typically employs four full-time workers and six seasonal workers, was only about 70% occupied for part of last year due to the labor shortage caused by the pandemic.

And, according to Erb, some of the first-time visitors had to teach principles such as “leave no trace”.

“As a result, we have seen an increase in litter and parking violation violations, such as:

Mastering challenges

Dunn said during the hearing on Wednesday that the department as a whole has faced many challenges over the past 18 months due to increased interest. That meant focusing on educating new users about outdoor safety and moving workers to deal with overcrowding issues.

She said these are the kind of challenges the department can handle. However, there are some challenges that need to be addressed by state lawmakers.

“Our park and forest system has a huge backlog of well over a billion dollars in infrastructure,” she said. “These needs include everything from things like sewage treatment plants to safe dams to picnic pavilions and visitor centers. We are therefore far behind in maintaining the infrastructure due to a lack of funds. “

To raise more money for these needs, Dunn says the department is improving its work with nonprofits, exploring opportunities to partner with private companies, and spreading the word that local governments can use funds from the American Rescue Plan for recreation.

“The pandemic has made it clear that citizens want more outdoor recreation,” she said. “And I think investing in recreation can restore our economies and build our communities.”

Maximize Opportunities

Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said he had left the past 18 months with the same outlook and urged state lawmakers to seize the opportunity to promote outdoor recreation in Keystone State.

“We believe the Pennsylvanians’ connection with wildlife has been re-established, and nature has the potential to continue beyond the pandemic, as evidenced by the sale of licenses and permits that remain strong,” he said. “We need to capitalize on the lessons of this pandemic.”

The biggest lesson, Burhans said, was that when people have more free time, they are likely to go outdoors. This means that the rules and regulations surrounding hunting must be geared towards increasing participation during times when people tend to have more free time – such as on weekends.

“We should maximize hunting opportunities on weekends when most people get some relief from work, family and school,” he told lawmakers. “For this we need your help to finally and completely repeal the antiquated Blue Law, which prohibits hunting on most Sundays.”

Burhans said that since the passage of a bipartisan bill allowing three days for Sunday hunting in 2020, the hunting community has found overwhelming support for more of these opportunities. He said many indicated that the ability to hunt on Sundays was the main reason for buying licenses.

“The lesson from this change in law and the pandemic clearly shows that more hunting opportunities at the weekend will result in more licenses being sold, and that means more resources to help our wildlife and our citizens,” he said.

A thank you

While Burhans used his testimony at the hearing to campaign for law changes, Timothy Schaeffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, used some of his time to thank lawmakers for the recently passed laws he believes are helped the agency weather the storm for the past 18 months.

He said laws that for the first time allowed the commission to set its own license fees that gave the commission greater enforcement powers on unsafe dams and synchronized boating under the influence with penalties for driving under the influence.

“The relationship between the three resource agencies has never been stronger,” he said. “You should know that when COVID really struck, we were on the phone weekly comparing notes of how we were going about things so that our messages were consistent.”

And Schaeffer said that thanks to its team on the commission, with its Trout in the Classroom program, the agency has actually increased its reach in the community, strengthened its online licensing system and invested in some of its infrastructure.

Lawmakers, in turn, thanked those who testified for their hard work maintaining outdoor recreational activities during the pandemic and for letting them know what they need to keep things going in the future.

MPs who spoke expressed a desire to support outdoor recreation in any way they could, but the actual dollar amounts for financial aid were not discussed.

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