State Parks Learning to Depend on Volunteers and Charity

May 15, 1994|By GREG TASKER

For the past three years, Gathland State Park has largely been a scenic overlook for visitors curious enough to tool their cars up winding roads or hikers passing through on the Appalachian Trail.

Once atop South Mountain, visitors to this 140-acre park straddling the border between Frederick and Washington counties could walk among stone remnants of a 19th-century newspaperman's estate and puzzle at an unusual 50-foot monument to Civil War correspondents.

But there were no park rangers there to answer questions -- to interpret the historical and cultural significance of the park, which was also the site of a clash between Confederate and Union troops just days before the bloody Battle of Antietam.

State budget cuts a few years back left the park without brochures. Public restrooms and a small park museum were closed. Picnic tables were removed. A campground was closed.

That is about to change. Thanks to the efforts of the Gathland Task Force, public services will be restored this summer at the park.

Volunteers plan to staff a small museum containing writing and artifacts from George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War reporter and novelist whose pen name was Gath.

Public restrooms will be reopened and walkways and stone fences repaired. There's also hope of securing grant money to hire personnel and fund other projects.

But it's important to note that this effort has succeeded largely because of the private sector, a host of conservationists, hikers and others who share an affinity for this unusual Western Maryland park.

Gathland represents another Maryland park success story. But it's a story that also raises questions about Maryland's growing reliance on the private sector to help run, maintain and fund parks and programs.

After all, the stewardship of the varied and beautiful Maryland park system lies with the State Forest and Park Service, the state Department of Natural Resources and ultimately, state government.

Their role is to "ensure the preservation, development, wise use" and public enjoyment of all Maryland's natural resources. It's a mission now achieved with more and more help from the outside.

Consider: Once the state had about 100 organized volunteers among its 47 state parks and forests. Today, there are more than 6,000, and the numbers are growing. Volunteers mow grass, trim trees, pick up trash and complete a slew of other tasks.

Even so, those efforts have not succeeded everywhere. Until now, Gathland State Park was among the failures. Two previous attempts to establish so-called friends groups there failed. If this third attempt should fail, does Gathland again become a scenic overlook?

Seeking volunteers was one of the goals of Rick Barton, superintendent of Maryland's state forests and parks. Volunteers provide labor and talent currently unavailable to the park system and allow people to become more involved with these natural jewels.

Many volunteers are willing to help out, but wonder about the state's lack of financial commitment.

DNR officials don't expect increased funding for state parks and forests any time soon. Raising admission and other fees to compensate for lack of funds isn't realistic either, they say.

The volunteers save money. So does corporate sponsorship of state outdoor programs and other projects. Parks need money for vehicles and other supplies, including toilet paper.

Business sponsorship at Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County, for example, has meant glossy, colorful park brochures, a new playground and free admission to summer visitors.

While there are concerns about commercial exploitation of state parks -- something DNR officials say won't happen -- there is a greater concern that this quest for more public and private involvement will result in diminished state fiscal responsibility.

State park officials aren't to be blamed for their creativity in seeking more money in these austere budget times. They're looking out for places like Gathland, Gambrill and dozens of others.

Ajax Eastman, a member and past president of the Maryland Conservation Council, believes the financial well-being of Maryland's state parks rests with state government, not the private sector.

"I don't think mixing private enterprise and the parks is a good idea," she said. "The state always says it doesn't have money to buy toilet paper, but it always finds money for other things. I think state parks and forests really provide a unique opportunity to enjoy the out-of-doors and that needs to be provided for."

Greg Tasker is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering Western Maryland.

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