Hey, big spender, enjoy a little nip for us


March 22, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON

Welcome to Carrie Nation.

The Department of Natural Resources announced last week a new alcohol policy at state parks that will, in effect, ban drinking unless you stay in top-of-the-line lodging or buy a $35 "special events" permit.

Talk about pay to play. Nation, the 1900s temperance movement leader who attacked bars with a hatchet, would call it a step in the right direction.

Day-use areas and beaches will go on the wagon March 31. Campgrounds - except for full-service cabins - will be dry starting next season. The new rules are in line with those in about a dozen states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"Open partying is coming to an end," says Maryland Parks Superintendent Nita Settina.

Do I like the fact that a bottle of my finest screw-cap wine will no longer be welcomed at a Maryland campground? No more than I like some slob setting up camp next door on a Friday night with several cases of beer and his favorite Megadeth CDs.

But the state's response to the problem (if there is one) seems out of whack. Let's look at the state's own numbers.

About 11 million people visit Maryland parks and campgrounds annually. They spend more than $139 million and generate $13.5 million in tax revenue. Not every visitor is an angel, however. Last year, Natural Resource Police officers issued 413 citations and 85 warnings for alcohol-fueled misbehavior and 32 tickets for suspected drunken driving.

"Cop cars in a campground at 2 a.m. with lights flashing - would you want your child exposed to that?" Settina asks. "We want the family-style experience to remain intact."

Agreed, no one wants to have a bad experience, especially on vacation. But just 530 of the 11 million park users last year needed adult intervention. That hardly seems like Fort Lauderdale at spring break.

What's really disturbing about the new policy is its "Champagne for the rich, ginger ale for the poor" underpinnings. Where does it say that people who shell out $80 to $120 a night for a full-service cabin are more respectable and trustworthy than people in a $35-a-night campsite?

Finally, there's the part about charging $35 for a piece of paper by a parks system that already has among the highest fees in the country. It must be really nice paper.

There is a bright side. It's hard to believe that the understaffed NRP, which sometimes has a single officer patrolling an entire county, will have the time to go all Eliot Ness on us.

Here's hoping DNR officials (I won't say at the highest level because that would be a cheap joke) will embrace a "live and let live" philosophy for those who are discreet, so that a camping couple sipping wine with their spaghetti won't find their wrists in plastic cuffs as officers upend their ice-filled Coleman.

Maybe cooler heads will prevail.

In other news

Good news:: NRP finally has a class of 18 officer-candidates at the training academy, only the second class since 2002.

Bad news:: About 12 officers retire each year and nearly 70 officers are eligible to retire right now.

Good news:: The General Assembly is considering bills to toughen penalties on fish poaching.

Bad news:: "Until you have people to enforce laws, they're just words on paper," says Andy Hughes of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland.

Good news: : DNR has a Memo of Understanding with State Police over the use of Medevac helicopters that includes "pre-planned" law enforcement.

Bad news:: "The MOU is a feel-good document, but when you look at it, it has holes in it," says Wildlife Advisory Commission chairman Wilson Freeland. "We're not going to see State Police helicopters out there patrolling the waterways. They're going to be waiting at the hangar for a medical call."

Good news:: The state hopes to get $500,000 in federal money to buy more "talking buoys" for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Bad news:: "That's not going to do you a lick of good if your boat is capsizing and there's no one to come and get you," says WAC member Chris Dollar. "You will know the temperature and salinity, though."

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