Budget-strapped state parks turn to volunteers

January 17, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

They mow grass, trim trees, maintain trails, pick up trash and complete a slew of mundane tasks at state parks across Maryland.

In Western Maryland, volunteers spearheaded recent efforts to relight a 19th-century stone monument to George Washington that hadn't been illuminated in 15 years.

On the shores of Chesapeake Bay, volunteers mowed grass, opened and closed gates and staffed interpretive programs to keep Calvert Cliffs State Park open during the state's budget crunch.

Three years ago, there were fewer than 100 organized volunteers among Maryland's 47 state parks and forests. Today, they're a force of 6,000, thanks to several initiatives, including Volunteer Maryland, a federally funded program that recently marked its first anniversary.

Maryland's budget crunch of the early 1990s and the environmental movement also have played roles in the volunteer surge, said Rick Barton, superintendent of Maryland's state forests and parks.

"It's incredible how much people are pitching in," he said.

The effort received a boost from Volunteer Maryland, which dispersed a $1.6 million federal grant to environmental, public health and welfare organizations to hire coordinators to organize volunteers.

"A lot of citizens are not involved but truly have a great concern and willingness to become involved," said Margaret Gilmore, program manager for Volunteer Maryland.

Volunteer Maryland's coordinators have established so-called friends groups at Washington Monument and Gambrill state parks in Western Maryland. Deep Creek Lake State Park and others in Western Maryland are targeted for assistance this year.

Efforts were less successful elsewhere. Pocomoke River State Forest on the Eastern Shore is struggling to form a permanent friends group, and a group effort fizzled at Gathland State Park on the Frederick-Washington counties border.

Friends groups are not new. Some parks have always had them. Others like Western Maryland's Rocky Gap State Park, faced with budget cuts, reallocated resources to hire volunteer coordinators.

"We've had a huge response. We have close to 400 volunteers, and they do everything," said Bill Cihlar, manager of state parks and forests in Allegany County. "They've given us over 12,000 hours. That equates to six full-time people working 40-hour weeks year round."

Without volunteers, Mr. Barton said, Calvert Cliffs State Park, on the Southern Maryland shore of the Chesapeake in Calvert County, would have closed and others across the state would still be in need of maintenance and other repairs.

"We want volunteers for two reasons," Mr. Barton said. "They provide labor and talent we don't have available to us. And second and more importantly, it gives citizens a way to participate in what we do, and we really want that."

Jon Kirkwood, a chemistry instructor who lives near Calvert Cliffs, was among those who were tapped to form a friends group there. With about 40 active members, the group maintains trails, staffs interpretive programs and does "just about everything the state used to do," Mr. Kirkwood said.

"It's a pretty park. It's hard to put a finger on my motivation," he said. "But it's kind of like having a 1,200-acre playground."

Other volunteers have mentioned the feeling of pride their work gives them. Many recall visiting the parks as children and say they want to see them maintained.

"They don't want to see the services go down because the parks are a part of them," said Patty Manown, a Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman in Western Maryland.

In the past year, volunteers have rebuilt a lily pond at Gambrill State Park, rebuilt a handicapped-accessible trail at Greenbrier State Park and built a rock wall at Gathland State Park.

"We've had no trouble getting people involved," said Kenny Wuertenberg, Volunteer Maryland's regional coordinator for Western Maryland. About 1,000 volunteers are involved in the state parks in the South Mountain Recreation Area of Frederick and Washington counties.

"People want to come in and clean up the parks and feel like they made a difference," he said. "We've had a lot of success."

But volunteers like Billy Ware, a history buff who is a member of the Friends of Fort Frederick State Park in western Washington County, have mixed emotions about the growing volunteer movement.

Mr. Ware believes the state should be doing more.

"I'm glad to be doing what I'm doing, but I don't understand why we have to do it," he said. "It's not that much money to do some of these kinds of things."

Mr. Barton said state parks and forests aren't likely to receive a financial windfall soon.

"It's easy to say we need more money," he said. "But there are so many things the state's general fund needs to support. If our parks have the ability to take care of themselves, then we need to do that."

And keeping people involved with their parks, he said, is a primary goal of the Department of Natural Resources.

"We would never want to change that. It's the best way we can think of to involve the public in what we do. Even if we were fat with money, volunteers would still be the smart thing to do," he said.

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