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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

KENNERDELL -- Build it and they will come.

Nice to know that there are people who encourages others to love nature!

That was the idea in 1955 when Maurice K. Goddard was appointed Secretary of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forests and Waters (forerunner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) and embarked on an unprecedented plan to build a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania resident.
When Mr. Goddard retired in 1979, 45 state parks and over 130,000 acres had been added to the state park system, which now totals 120 outdoor recreational areas and nearly 300,000 acres of property.
But Mr. Goddard couldn't have anticipated the 21st century market saturation of home computers, TV, movies and electronic games, parental fears about sending their kids outside, and the consequences of a generation of Americans who have lost contact with the natural world.
The new mantra at DCNR?
Reach out and touch someone.
That's the goal of an organizational overhaul initiated this year to enhance the state's ability to program recreational opportunities and organized activities that might attract new park users.
One of the agency's most ambitious programs was a recent upscale eco-tour run out of Jennings Environmental Education Center in Slippery Rock.
Call it a sampler of autumn outdoors activities. The overnight adventure began with a shuttle ride to Clear Creek State Forest, across the Allegheny River from Kennerdell. Accompanied by park workers, 13 of us embarked on a short guided hike with a state forester who explained the conservation strategy of a large deer exclosure, local rattlesnake activity, a controversial controlled forest burn and trailside plant biology.
At Danner Campground we set up tents provided by the DCNR and hiked again along a Class A trout stream with frequent breaks for object lessons in regional history, geography and Leave No Trace philosophy. Following a delicious fire-cooked catered meal of roast chicken, stuffed squash, potatoes and baked apples, we settled in around the campfire -- they even remembered to bring the fixin's for 'Smores.
After a night of primitive camping, the North Country Brewing caterers served a hearty breakfast al fresco. Park staff shuttled us to Emlenton for a quick paddling lesson and guided canoe trip 7 miles downriver to Parker. The adventure ended with a buffet dinner at Foxburg's Allegheny Grill and free time to browse through the town's bustling Art, Food and Wine Festival.
The Fall Foliage Foray's $100-per-person price tag included four prepared meals and snacks, overnight tent and site rental, transportation, local guides and outstanding service from Jennings' staff. The DCNR eco-tour was a deal that no nonprofit group, commercial lodge or outdoors package tour could match.
"A few years ago, it was unheard of for us to have [equipment] or anything like that so we could lead trips on the water or a trail," said Wil Taylor, program coordinator at Jennings Environmental Education Center. "But now [Harrisburg] is encouraging that."
Overnight eco-tours are the most ambitious part of DCNR's new proactive programming initiative. They're still considered experimental; only a few state parks have tried them. Jennings has done three.
"You get a little bit of everything," said Gina Hench of Cranberry, a Jennings frequent flier who's taken all three trips: an overnight hike to Moraine State Park, a winter sampler at McKeever Environmental Learning Center and Goddard State Park, and the recent Kennerdell adventure. "For those who are experienced it's an inexpensive, nice weekend to spend with people. For those that aren't, you're with a group of people who know what they're doing."
Jennings' eco-tours attract people from college age to retirement. Sixty-eight-year-old Celia Taylor of Grove City said the recent trip was "not too strenuous."
"I enjoyed getting the canoe one day and the hike another day," she said. "I'm widowed and don't have a lot of people to do this kind of thing with, and I don't have the equipment, either. So it just worked out very nicely."
DCNR is trying to sharpen its ability to market each park's particular amenities and package inter-park activities. Its educational division was recently retitled and a new section for Outdoors Recreational Programing was added. Regional managers were hired, and for the first time in the history of Pennsylvania's state park system sporting goods equipment was purchased by the state for use by program participants.
DCNR Secretary Michael Di Berardinis said the organizational overhaul was mostly a redistribution of existing resources. Little new money was added to the park system's annual budget. Parks are still expected to generate $15 million to $20 million of DCNR's $100 million budget.
"We did a lot of research and conducted a study to try to validate the assumptions of many of us that there's a powerful nexus between environmental education and outdoors recreation," said Mr. DiBerardinis. "We're trying to find the intersect. We think when people get really engaged in the resource -- whether it's bird watching or rock climbing or kayaking or fishing -- it presents a wonderful opportunity to help them understand, in general, how to conserve those resources and what their role is in conservation."
Facing a generation of Pennsylvanians who'd rather swim in a heated pool than a freshwater lake, recruiting new park visitors will require a new generation of aggressive marketing techniques.
"We need to build new audiences," he said. "Part of that is connecting with people who live in heavily built environments in metropolitan areas. We need to find ways to get them to connect with nature."
One of DCNR's new regional managers, Melissa Lambert of Mt. Washington, is finding new ways for parks in Western Pennsylvania to interact with each other and attract new visitors.
"It's a multifaceted job, helping parks to coordinate their programs, training staff, offering a helping hand with some of their programs," she said. "We're helping [parks] to create partners and work beyond their park boundaries."
In one of the new programs, Adventure Camp, urban kids from Pittsburgh and Erie are recruited to spend a week outdoors.
"These are kids who had never been out of the city," said Ms. Lambert. "We taught them things like fishing and kayaking and biking and Leave No Trace ethics with the hope that they'll take that knowledge [home] and make connections of their own, maybe come back and bring their families. We're trying to attract a whole new audience."


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