BALTIMORE COUNTY — Gunpowder Falls State Park has seen a drastic increase in visitors this year which is now magnifying several issues that many residents are saying have been around for a while at the park.
According to Dan Hughes, who is the park manager at Gunpowder Falls, the park has seen around 1.2 million visitors already this year. This is a large increase from last year which saw a total of 1.4 million visitors.
Gunpowder Falls is not the only park seeing more visitors. Hughes said a total of around 8.6 million people have visited parks throughout the state so far this year and that an estimated 17 million will visit the parks by the year’s end—a record high number.
Hughes said the increase in visitors is due in large part to indoor activities and events being closed or canceled due to COVID-19.
“We have seen an increase in numbers for the last 20 years but this year has been on absolute turbocharge. When the state was locked down we saw a lot of first-time visitors. More Marylanders are discovering their state parks than ever before,” Hughs said.
“Any parks that have any water access, especially in central Maryland where there is a large population density, is seeing unprecedented use.”
Hughs noted that in general, when the economy takes a nosedive, which it has since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, parks start to see more visitors. This is because it costs nothing to hike trails and swim in the waterways that are within parks.
Increase in visitors means an increase in trash
Now that more people are visiting the park, Hughes said more trash has been found on trails, around landmarks and in waterways within the park. Hughes said in just the Notchcliff area of the park alone, over two tons of trash were collected in just a three week period.
Parking lots have also begun to fill up and many people are parking their cars on Belair road which, according to people who live on or near the road, is causing traffic problems.
The increase in cars parked along Belair road can be attributed to not only the increase in visitors but to the fact that the Big Gunpowder Falls parking lot along northbound US 1 ( Belair Road) is closed due to a rehabilitation project of the Belair Road bridge. This project is expected to be completed this fall.
Councilman David Marks and Delegate Kathy Szeliga have been notified about these issues, which is why they took a tour of the park with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources ( MDNR) to see the issues that have been going on and to discuss ways to address them.
“We toured the eastern side of the park from the Belair Road bridge to Pot Rocks, which is about a mile downriver. The Department of Natural Resources is dealing with an unprecedented increase in park patrons. This not only impacts parking but also creates more trash,” Marks said.
Szelgia said she hopes MDNR can come up with a campaign to remind people to not litter since the parks no longer provide trash cans along the paths.
“I think we may need to go back to putting trash cans in our parks so that people will pick up after themselves. This particular state park is intended for hiking with your family, friends and pets but it was never intended for a day experience with a grill and coolers,” Szelgia said.
“If people want to do that they should go to the Hammerman part of the park because they have bathrooms and picnic benches.”
Hughes also said he encourages people to go to the Hammerman area if they want to picnic and swim because it will take some pressure off of other parts of the park.
Hughes added that the parks department is using all its resources to address the trash issue, which means less time and money is being spent on other aspects of the park.
“We have dispatched employees and we are spending hundreds of man-hours a week picking up trash every single day. It has come at the expense of normal things we would be doing like cutting the grass, maintaining the trails, and improving the trails. We have about a dozen or more people every single day going and picking up trash at every one of those locations,” Hughes said.
The locations that Hughes said have the most trash are the areas around Jones Road, Belair Road, Harford Road and Notchcliff Road—all places where there is access to waterways that are part of the park.
In terms of the parking issue, Marks said the state should consider expanding the parking lot off of Belair road if environmental regulations allow for it. However, Mark said there is a more practical solution to the traffic/parking problem.
“ [ We need] to encourage people to use the park at earlier and later times to better manage its use. Some people have suggested requiring an online registration like what is being done at Kilgore Falls in Harford County, but that would require a ranger to monitor use,” Marks said.
Difficulties in responding to emergencies
A more pressing issue Marks and Szeliga discussed was the ability for first responders to access the park when there are emergencies.
“A park patron suffered a cardiac arrest earlier in July, and there was difficulty accessing him on the river,” Marks said.
According to MDNR, since the beginning of the year, Natural Resources Police reported nine incidents requiring medical assistance (not necessarily involving local first responders) at the entirety of Gunpowder Falls State Park.
There unfortunately have been two fatalities at the park this summer. Both remain under investigation.
The night of July 3, officers responded to a reported drowning in a remote stretch of the Gunpowder River in the Perry Hall area. Witnesses found the victim unresponsive and began to perform CPR until EMS arrived; they were unable to revive the individual, who was reportedly at the park alone.
The evening of July 8, officers responded to the Hammerman Beach Area of the park, in Chase, when a woman reported to lifeguards that her five-year-old son was missing in an unguarded area of the beach.
The lifeguards and members of the public searched the area and the child was found submerged in water. Lifeguards administered CPR before emergency personnel arrived. The child was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Councilman Marks said the Kingsville Volunteer Fire Company’s swift water rescue team has suggested that the Baltimore County Police Department purchase a hoist to allow equipment to be easily transported to remote locations. Another possibility is building an access point from the Richlyn Drive pumping station.
“We are hoping to get some kind of access near Belair Road so we can get a boat in the river. The problem is, is that our environmental laws are so strict that getting a permit to put in emergency access only ramp is virtually impossible,” Szelgia said.
“Councilman Marks and I are working to find a solution to that because we don’t need to have more people perish because fire and rescue couldn’t get to them.”
Park Maintenance Backlog
Kim Coble, Executive Director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said a possible reason behind why the MDNR and Gunpowder Falls State Park is having some of the issues Marks and Szelgia noticed during their tour is because the National Park Service has a large maintenance backlog.
“Even before the economic slowdown caused by coronavirus, these resources were facing unprecedented pressures and threats.” Coble points out that in Maryland alone, national parks currently have a $244,457,125 backlog.
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters is just one of 36 conservation groups who are advocating for state and national parks by pushing for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Great American Outdoors Act.
“The Great American Outdoors Act addresses the incredibly important problem of the National Park Service maintenance backlog,” Coble said.
“Over the past few months, we’ve been reminded just how essential our parks and open space are to our physical and mental health.”
MIDDLE RIVER — Tripp and Brody Weinreich love being outside and learning anything related to animals and reptiles—which is why Marshy Point Nature Center is their home away from home.
When the Weinreich brothers found out that the annual summer camp they have been attending at Marshy Point for several years was canceled due to COVID-19, they decided to find a way to support the center.
“We collected cans from our neighbors and my mom’s work friends,” 8-year-old Tripp said. “We are going to collect cans all summer and fall.”
Aluminum pop cans, that is. The brothers knew that Marshy Point collects aluminum cans to be recycled as a way to help fund nature center programming.
Soon, the boys and their parents Carin and Lee, called on their neighborhood Facebook groups, local marinas, schools, and more to help them in their efforts. In just over a month, the Weinreich’s have collected around 10,000 aluminum cans to donate to the nature center—enough cans to fill an entire trailer.
Tripp said he chose to support the nature center because he values what the Marshy Point camp councilors teach him about environmental preservation.
“I like to learn about different animals like fish, reptiles and turtles. Some animals are endangered and if one goes, they all go,” Tripp said.
“My favorite part is just being outside and playing and seeing the owls,” 6-year-old Brody said.
The brothers’ camp counselors can attest to their love of nature and animals—and for their enthusiasm towards protecting the environment.
“If I could pick one word to describe them it would be energetic,” James Duffy, a camp counselor at Marshy Point said.
”They are our most dedicated campers. They have been coming to camp ever since I started working here and it has been amazing to watch them grow. When Brody first came he was shy but over the week and after being outside and making friends he grew so much. They’re just like little adults now.”
“They are always enthusiastic and willing to do anything,” Kelsie Fronheiser, another camp counselor said. “ [Tripp] knows a lot for a little kid. He’s an avid animal lover and has always been a big nature fan.”
Carin, the mother of Tripp and Brody, said she is proud of her boys and is always telling them that their actions affect the well being of the environment—no matter how small.
“We try to teach them that kids can help with their acts, whether it is picking up a piece of litter, it will help the environment. They love animals and everything about the Bay. We recently got a kayak so we have been doing that down at Marshy Point. They really miss camp though,” Carin said.
Marshy Point did have to cancel this year’s summer camp but they are doing virtual summer camp sessions via a private Facebook page.
These sessions will include brief, daily, pre-recorded lessons that campers can view at any time during their scheduled week, or later. Marshy Point Naturalists will also post scavenger hunts and activities for campers to complete in their backyards and/or community parks. They will also monitor the Facebook group for each camp, and provide feedback and assistance when necessary.
One upcoming summer camp session, From Rivers to the Bay, will run August 3rd to the 7th and is for ages 11 and 12. Another session, Bay Explorers, will run from August 17th to the 21st and is for ages 6 and 7. These two camp sessions are free and to register for them people can contact the Nature Center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The remaining spaces will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. If space is available, people will also need to share their Facebook profile name and info., so that they can be invited to the private Facebook group for that camp.
The Baltimore County Board of Education during its school board meeting last week listened to three scenarios under which schools may reopen in the fall.
The third option, a full in-person opening, is contingent on the state band county both being in Phase 3 of Gov. Larry Hogan’s “Roadmap to Recovery.”
Both the state and county are in Phase 2.
The first option is full remote learning by students, while the second option is a hybrid, with some students attending school in-person and others continuing to use remote learning.
No decision has been made, but Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams left no doubt as to his preference.
(The county school board held a special meeting on Tuesday after the Avenue went to press, during which it was to vote on a proposal to continue remote learning until January 29. It is expected to pass.)
“As we move forward to the opening of schools in the fall, there are a number of unknowns and moving parts that have yet to be considered,” Williams said. “To that end, I am leaning towards a virtual reopening with some kind of phased-in approach after we open.”
Williams quoted from a study he had read: “returning to school is important for the healthy development of children, but we must pursue reopening in a way that is safe for all our students, teachers and staff.
“Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools, and public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics.”
The three re-opening scenarios, as presented by Barbara Burnopp and Dr. Renard Adams of curriculum operations, are:
Scenario One — Assume the state and county are in Phase 1 of the recovery plan. Enhancements have been made to the remote learning system based upon lessons learned last spring and feedback from students, teachers and parents.
School physical facilities remain closed, all teaching is done remotely.
Scenario 2 — Assume the state and county are in Phase 2 of the recovery plan (the current state). All students have live interaction with teachers, either in-person or online. Mitigation strategies to prevent infection with COVID-19 are required.
Schools are open at 30 to 35 percent of capacity, with students attending school on an A Week/B Week/C Week rotation; or schools open at 50 percent capacity using an A Week/B Week rotation.
Teachers are on duty Monday through Friday, with Friday a planning day. Students attend school Monday through Thursday, with Friday an online instruction day.
Students attending school in-person would be cohorted by address.
Scenario 3 — Assume the state and county are in Phase 3 of the “Roadmap” recovery plan. Mitigation measures such as enhanced cleaning, screening for symptoms, isolation of sick persons and enforcement of quarantines will be strictly required.
Social distancing may be relaxed, and face coverings may be optional. All students, teachers and staff return to school buildings.
Dr. Renard and Burnoff emphasized the scenarios “were not a finalized plan, but show the parameters that have guided our thinking while we gathered stakeholder input and feedback.”
Also: “the decision to open schools, how to open schools, or whether to continue remote learning, will be conditions-based, not time-based.
“The decisions will be based on consideration of science-based trigger points articulated by public health officials along with any binding directives from state or local authorities; decisions will not be based on a fixed timeline. There will not be a predetermined timeline for resumption of activities; rather will allow the condition of the environment, and health guidelines, to determine what actions are taken.”
For student safety in the event of scenario 2 or 3 being used, the school system will use its mitigation strategy that has been approved by the county health department and aligns with guidelines from the Center for Disease Control:
Social distancing, screening, healthy operations (no shared use of items, making sure indoor air is mixed with outside air), cleaning (building surfaces and individual’s hands), communications and responses.
Students will also adhere to safety protocols and participate in drills, and visitors to the schools will be limited and screened.
Social distancing will be practiced on school buses will students seated one per row, and buses carrying between nine and 21 students rather than 64.
All school systems must present their final re-opening plans to the state by August 14.
Superintendent Williams also expressed concern for students in a transitional year: kindergarten to elementary schools, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school.
“Here is my concern,” Williams said. “Kids are making a transition to new levels, kids who have been dis-engaged for a variety of reasons. There has got to be some kind of phased-in approach.
“I think at this point, based on my conversations with colleagues across Maryland, it will serve us better to lean to a more virtual return, to have some kind of phase-in. I think our young folks may need that.”