Our View: Healey can bring beauty back to neglected spaces Budgets

It took a pandemic to push people outdoors.

In the early days of COVID-19, with gyms, pools, basketball courts and hockey rinks shut down, Massachusetts residents laced up their hiking boots and made for the woods like never before.

“Six months ago you’d go on the trails and see one or two people,” David Alden-St. Pierre of Beverly’s Open Space Committee said back in the summer of 2020, as people began to cautiously venture outdoors. “Now there are days when you see tons of people on the trails. People were looking for a way to get outdoors. That’s what the trails are for.”

Essex County’s open spaces saw usage grow by more than 200% during the pandemic. Two years later, the state’s outdoor spaces remain as popular as ever.

“The tremendous increase in park visits did not wane when pandemic conditions eased,” a group of state and local environmental and outdoor advocacy groups wrote in a letter to the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Maura Healey. “People realized, many for the first time, that they had these publicly funded, historic gems in their midst and continue to flock to them in droves.”

Unfortunately, visitors are now finding many of the parks and open spaces run by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to be suffering from neglect and years of inattention. That must change. A state flush with cash can surely reinvest in one of its greatest resources.

The need is real.

“State park visitors rarely encounter rangers, and too often find shuttered facilities, crumbling infrastructure, and dirty bathrooms,” according to the letter from the group, which counts nearly 50 member organizations. “Park enforcement rules to ensure visitor safety and resource protection are virtually non-existent. Also compromised is our parkland’s ability to support our physical and mental well-being, promote environmental justice, mitigate flooding and urban heat islands, foster climate resilience, and harbor significant natural resources and biodiversity.”

Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, Halibut Point State Park in Rockport and the Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover are among the DCR properties North of Boston.

The conservation groups have a series of recommendations aimed at returning the open spaces to their former glory. Among them:

Appoint a DCR commissioner with “expertise, vision and leadership skills.” The department has suffered from a lack of continuity, with six commissioners in the last eight years.

Increase the department’s operating budget by $10 million a year over the next decade to bring spending in line with the levels of the early 2000s. Investment has been lagging for years. A state report released late last year showed that DCR, which is responsible for roughly 500,000 acres of forests, beaches and parks, has lost 300 full-time employees – almost a quarter of its staff – since 2009.

Use American Recovery Plan Act funding to help eliminate nearly $1 billion in deferred maintenance work throughout the parks system. It would be a wise investment. The state’s parks attract more than 26 million visitors a year. Outdoor recreation supports approximately $10.5 billion of gross state product, 113,800 jobs, and $5.5 billion of compensation, making outdoor recreation about the same size as the state’s transportation and warehousing sector. Yet Massachusetts’ investment in its parks system consistently ranks among the lowest of all 50 states.

“The pandemic proved beyond all doubt that our parks are essential for our physical and mental well-being,” said Doug Pizzi, executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters. “It’s a long past time to treat them that way.”

We agree, and feel the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration has a rare opportunity to return the system to its past splendor.