Visitors to Susquehanna State Park this spring have seen some less than enchanting sights: graffiti on the exterior wall of the historic toll house, litter strewn on overgrown grass, restrooms that haven't been cleaned in four months.
The park was closed to the public in January due to state budget cuts, but many people have continued to use it because there are no gates to seal off park entrances.
And without any full-time state workers to keep the park maintained for the past several months, the park has become disheveled.
Last Saturday, though, about 30 Harford County volunteers took matters into their own hands. They pruned park trees and shrubs, weeded flower beds, cut grass, cleaned toilets and picked up litter.
The Save The Susquehanna State Park Committee organized Saturday's clean-up effort, the first of several such work days planned by the citizens organization started after the state closed the park. More than 25 people showed up Saturday, including about a dozen members of Brownie Troop 228.
"We're trying to open up the Rock Run mill area first," said 21-year-old Lance Miller, co-chairman of The Save The Susquehanna State Park Committee and a Darlington resident.
"We're also trying to get the picnic area open so people will have a place to have a picnic lunch. If all goes well, the Rock Run mill and mansion area will open up Memorial Day weekend."
Susquehanna was one of 18 state parks closed for five months beginning in January; Susquehanna's closingsaved the state about $60,000. The parks are scheduled to reopen July 1, when the new fiscal year begins and the parks' operating budgetswill be renewed.
"When the parks closed there was a hue and cry from the public across the state," said Donald Gaver, regional park manager for the central region of the state for the Department of Natural Resources.
In response to the outcry, a seasonal park ranger atGambrill State Park in Frederick County suggested DNR seek volunteers to care for that state park, Gaver said. The idea proved so successful DNR conducted public meetings across the state to see if people were interested in working at other state parks, Gaver said.
When Miller heard that DNR was sponsoring a meeting to gauge community interest in a volunteer project at Susquehanna, he decided to become involved -- and ended up co-chairing the committee.
He said overgrown grass is the biggest challenge posed to volunteers in the 2,639-acre park.
"If it wasn't for the mowing, we might be able to open sooner, but that's 80 percent of our work," said Miller. "The state is letting us use their mowers, but we could run out of gas any time. We only have the existing supply to use."
Susquehanna Park Ranger ChrisBurley, who lives in the park, said he's found trash left by visitors after several nice spring weekends.
"Three weeks ago, I had 3,500 people here in the park -- I wrote nine citations that day for parkviolations, the most I've ever written," said Burley. He patrols thepark five days a week for security despite the park being officiallyclosed. Two other rangers have been assigned to weekend duty since the spring fishing season started.
Without the volunteers' help, Burley said, the park couldn't be ready for its scheduled July 1 reopening date.
"We were looking at July 1 with knee-high grass, which can be a fire hazard, and a trash accumulation that would be quite ugly," Burley said. "The buildings would not be ready -- it would be mid-July before we could really open without their help."
During the volunteers' first work day at the park, Sue Asher, a Havre de Grace woman who co-chairs the volunteer committee with Miller, supervised the distribution of lawn and garden equipment to volunteers.
She also spent some time educating visitors about the condition of the park.
"Some people come anyway to use the park and don't realize what'shappened, that it's closed," said Asher. "When times are tight, thisis free entertainment. It's inexpensive fun that's family-oriented. That it doesn't exist now because of a budget crunch -- that's just not right."
The committee's efforts have attracted a variety of volunteers, from 17-year-old Michael Old, the son of a park ranger assigned on weekends to Susquehanna State Park, to couples like Ann and Ronald George, of Havre de Grace.
"We don't come down to the park often, but we thought we'd see what we could do because they needed help," said Ann George, who with her husband did some weeding around theold toll house building. "Our kids came down here all the time."
Burley praised the volunteers for their work to make the park presentable.
"From my position, you go through a period where your moraledrops and you start to see the buildings deteriorate and see the park overgrown," said Burley.
"To see these people work to get the park as pretty as it was is one of the most rewarding things I've seen happen in years."