For 125 years, Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests have been offering visitors opportunities for educational and recreational activities.
The system includes 300,000 acres of land that’s an integral part of the recreation offerings for the state, attracting some 38 to 40 million visitors each year, said Kevin Fazzini, assistant director for Pennsylvania State Parks.
“It’s one of the largest state park systems in the nation,” he said.
Cumberland County shares in that legacy as all or part of three parks and two forests are within its borders. Colonel Denning State Park and the Tuscarora State Forest straddle the North Mountain while Kings Gap Environmental Education Center, Pine Grove Furnace State Park and Michaux State Forest dominate the South Mountain.
The parks vary in age and size, but all share challenges that are met with a combination of volunteer and staff effort that will help ensure their survival into the future.
Even though the parks offer similar amenities and programs, each has its own character to attract different groups.
Finding Colonel Denning can be a challenge. It is often thought of as a hidden gem, and is overlooked by park visitors. Yet that same characteristic is just what draws others in.
“That makes us attractive to people who don’t like crowds,” said Jeff Johns, park manager at Colonel Denning.
With a sand beach at the lake, swimming and kayaking are popular at Colonel Denning, but the most prominent feature of the park is arguably the 2.5-mile Flat Rock Trail, which takes a steep and rocky path to the top of Blue Mountain in Tuscarora State Forest.
“Everyone likes to hike up there and see the view of the entire Cumberland Valley,” Johns said.
Of the three parks in the county, Pine Grove Furnace with its two lakes and busy campground may be small at 700 acres, but it boasts a large number of visitors. Andre Weltman, chairman of the Friends of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, credits a neighbor for some of that popularity.
“We benefit from the 85,000 acres of Michaux State Forest,” he said.
Pine Grove serves as a jumping off point for the state forest. Mountain bikers, hikers and anyone else heading into the woods can take advantage of the parking lots and amenities at Pine Grove.
Even though only six miles separate Kings Gap from Pine Grove, the two parks have a distinctly different environment.
Twenty miles of trails provides plenty of opportunity for hikers of all abilities to enjoy what Kings Gap’s regular visitors call “the mountain.” Jen Brehm, president of the Friends of Kings Gap, recommends taking a lunch along for a picnic on the mansion terrace overlooking the valley.
“It’s a good chance to get up and disconnect from everything,” she said.
The historic Cameron-Masland mansion is also open for tours from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays from Memorial Day to Christmas. A new program allows people to spend weekends from June through mid-November in the mansion.
“The thing that people have to be aware of is that we could have a full house with all the rooms rented or you could be the only people in the mansion. It depends on the weekend,” said Scott Hackenburg, park manager at Kings Gap.
Fazzini said parks in the system feel pressure as communities grow and technology allows construction to spread into areas that would previously been considered unable to be developed. That requires managers to be diligent about what is happening next door and how it affects the parks.
With Colonel Denning surrounded by the Tuscarora State Forest and Pine Grove surrounded by Michaux State Forest, encroaching development isn’t as much a danger as it might be for parks in other parts of the state. The bigger threat for them comes from nature itself.
“The biggest natural resource issue is invasives,” Hackenburg said, referring to non-native plants and insects that have been introduced to the area.
The recent and most destructive visitor to state parks has been the emerald ash borer. First discovered in Pennsylvania in 2007, the beetle has killed more than 40 million ash trees in a number of states. Their presence led to restrictions on transporting firewood in and out of parks and camping areas.
Johns pointed to problems Colonel Denning has had with an invasive plant called Japanese barberry that crowds out natural plants and commonly serves as a habitat for ticks bearing Lyme disease.
“People use it for ornamental planting, but it really has taken over the landscape here and makes trails impassable,” Johns said.
Area parks are also on the alert for the spotted lanternfly, which lives on host plants found at Kings Gap like ailanthus, or tree of heaven. Quarantine zones have already been set in eastern parts of the state to prevent the spread of the insect that attacks stone fruits and grapes and can also damage other trees. While not yet under quarantine, Hackenburg said the park staff has been working to rid the park of ailanthus as a means of destroying a potential lanternfly habitat.
“That’s not here yet, but, honestly, it’s a matter of time because the lanternfly is coming,” he said.
To help prevent the spread of invasives, hikers should always check their shoes for seeds and take advantage of boot brushes at some of the parks. Those going to the southeastern part of the state should check their cars to make sure spotted lanternfly haven’t laid eggs that could be transported back to Cumberland County.
“It’s just the concept of keeping your equipment clean,” Hackenburg said.
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Keystone Park, Recreation and Conservation Fund, which Fazzini said has become an integral part of maintaining the infrastructure of Pennsylvania’s state parks. Many of those parks were built in the 1930s, and some even earlier than that. All require constant attention and repairs.
There’s also an economic benefit in keeping the parks in top shape as $12.41 is returned for every dollar spent on the state’s parks.
“We try to make people understand that it’s a good investment,” Fazzini said.
As with other parks in the system, maintaining facilities can be a challenge at Colonel Denning. Tasks range from replacing the stop logs on the dam that control the lake to maintenance on buildings that date back half a century or more.
But, upgrades are essential to continuing to attract new visitors. This year, Colonel Denning closed its camping facilities for upgrades that include showers and flush toilets. With the changes, the park will be reclassified as modern rather than rustic.
“Next year, we really expect camping to be big,” Johns said.
Projects like this aren’t unusual across the system. Visitor expectations have been changing as they look for more amenities now than they did in the past, Fazzini said. Respondents to the department’s State Parks 2000 survey requested replacing pit latrines with flush toilets and adding shower facilities.
“Now, we’re moving into things like camping cottages and yurts and full-size camping hook-ups,” he said.
As an historic building, projects at Cameron-Masland mansion take special care. Nothing comes from stock, and the staff makes an effort to remodel and repair the mansion with an eye to the “arts and crafts” period that corresponds to its 1908 construction date. Institutional-looking drop ceilings, for example, were replaced with drop ceilings that mimic a tin ceiling.
“Everything is more expensive because of that,” Hackenburg said.
Work is also being done on the mansion to restore original elements like the brick in a large room off the patio. The original brick was seen for the first time in 75 years when the carpets in the room were torn out. The bricks took more than eight coats of wax to have their luster restored.
Weather conditions also affect the parks through reductions in attendance or storm damage.
“The weather has not been with us this year, but it hasn’t been with anybody. It’s either too rainy or too hot, one extreme to the other,” Hackenburg said.
Chestnut oaks at Kings Gap have been affected this year by oak anthracnose, a native fungus that causes leaves to die back. The fungus potentially could kill 10 percent of the trees, and thrives in wet weather.
“Conditions have been absolutely perfect for it,” Hackenburg said. “We really don’t know what the mortality of the trees are going to be until, in some cases, next year.”
Parks don’t have to meet the challenge alone.
“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If we would lose our volunteers, it would curtail a lot of things that we accomplish,” Hackenburg said.
Forty-two friends groups support Pennsylvania’s state parks, and Brehm said each of the groups have their own personality and flair.
At Kings Gap, responsibility for events at the park are shared between the park staff and the friends group. The Friends of Kings Gap holds events such as Music on the Mountain, but the park staff organizes educational events as well as Garden Harvest and Heritage Day.
Garden Harvest Day, the park’s largest events, typically takes at least 50 volunteers, but runs best with 75 volunteers, Hackenburg said.
At its monthly board meeting, Hackenburg offers the friends group a state of the park report that may include projects the group may be able to support financially, Brehm said. For example, the friends group forwarded funding to the park to pay for a project manager to do trail work in December. They also built a butterfly house, paid for the carpet in the mansion to be pulled up and oversaw replacement of more than 30 sets of shutters on the mansion.
“We typically make some major contribution to the park each year to help maintain or keep maintenance on the park,” Brehm said.
The work never runs out, Hackenburg said. The volunteers don’t take the place of paid staff; rather, they help the staff catch up on what needs to be done.
The friends group also provides volunteers to serve as docents at the mansion. Docents greet visitors and provide information about the mansion.
“If we can’t supply a volunteer, then one of his paid staff members have to stay in the mansion,” Brehm said.
“We support the park as a nonprofit affiliate. We’re all volunteer. We raise a lot of money. What’s relevant is that all of that money stays at the park,” Weltman said.
Friends of Pine Grove State Park raises money through the sale of merchandise and firewood as well as through events like a half-marathon and 5K race through the park. Fall Furnace Fest, a community activity held annually in October, is the group’s biggest event of the year.
“When people make donations or purchase merchandise, that doesn’t go to the general fund,” Weltman said.
That fundraising effort gives the park manager flexibility and dedicated extra funding when he has a project, he said. The group has raised money to repair the furnace stack, for example, so park management didn’t have to wait until the funds were available through the state. They also built a new hiking bridge across Mountain Creek in cooperation with the park staff.
Group members also assist with historical interpretation at the park. Weltman, for example, leads tours of the historic Ironmaster’s mansion as well as history-oriented hikes through the pike.
“I think that the state park would certainly be a busy and popular place without the Friends, but we give a little value added,” Weltman said.
The Friends group at Colonel Denning is smaller, but they have been able to help with needs like buying sand for the beach and mulch for the playgrounds, Johns said. Volunteers have also worked on the trail to Flat Rock, where they created switchbacks in one of the steep sections as well as a connector trail to another one of the park’s lesser-used trails.
The state parks department is now in the process of creating a statewide strategic plan in its Penn’s Parks for All project. The survey portion of the project has been completed with several thousand more respondents than in the State Parks 2000 survey.
“We think we have a pretty good representation of the commonwealth as a whole,” Fazzini said.
The department hopes to have a preliminary draft of the report in the fall with a final report to be released in 2019.
Weltman expects Pine Grove will continue to see heavy visitation in the next decade as people are looking for inexpensive places for family activity.
“That does mean that we need people to take care of the park whether it’s just cleaning up after themselves or volunteering with a group like ours,” he said.
Facilities upgrades will provide the spark for continued growth at Colonel Denning.
“We definitely see us growing as far as attendance and meeting the needs of the public with our new facilities,” Johns said.
Hackenburg believes Kings Gap will continue to grow with the land acquisition and the new trails as more people find the park.
“You have to want to come here. You don’t accidentally drive by and say, ‘Look at this mansion,’” he said.
In the coming years, the parks will continue to face increased pressure in the form of requested amenities like full-service hook-ups for campers, or permitting the parks for the use of hot air balloons, drones and all-terrain vehicles, among others.
“That’s always been the trick, to balance the use demands with the protection of the resource,” Fazzini said.
There have been rumors and discussion through the years about privatizing the parks, but Fazzini said many of the services that would be most profitable for private businesses have already been contracted to concession operators. The state still owns the parks, but receives fees from the concession operators who offer services like boat rentals and food concessions. To protect the park’s resources, agreements with the concessionaires spell out what is permitted in the park.
The greatest example is the Bald Eagle Inn in Centre County, Fazzini said. The inn offers space for vacationers and business meetings in the heart of Bald Eagle State Forest.
“I think it’s very bright,” Fazzini said of the future of the park system.