Have you visited New Jersey parks and outdoor spaces more this year than in the past? If you answered yes, you are not alone. A research article published recently by University of Vermont experts shows 69% of survey respondents reported increased or greatly increased visitation to natural areas and forests during the pandemic, with 26% adding that they had either never or very rarely accessed these areas before the pandemic. These respondents report that visiting nature for exercise, birding and stress relief was “very important.” The study’s authors conclude, “Experts in zoonotic disease predict the potential for more frequent pandemic events, thus predicating the importance for continued funding for, maintenance of, and improved access to, natural areas to our largely urban civilization.”
Translate that into visitors to New Jersey parks and open spaces, and you have a lot of heavy usage of our state and local parks and natural areas with stable or growing visitation. The state reports a relatively consistent 17 million visitors annually to the parks since 2008. That’s some heavy use and doesn’t include the increase in use in 2020.
Executive Order 118 closed the parks last April just when we needed them the most. But we understood that at the time, when preventing exposures to COVID-19 was of paramount importance. The Saturday in May when they reopened, many were “filled to capacity” early in the day. The phased reopening was initiated with instructions for visitors to maintain a 6-foot social distance and wear face coverings. However, swimming was banned at virtually all state-owned beaches and lakes.
Throughout the summer, parks were opened and closed based on capacity and staffing levels of seasonal employees like lifeguards. Visitors were advised to check the parks’ Facebook page for announcements about openings or closings. What we saw were people desperate to get outside, traveling to local and state parks by the thousands. They either did not know where to check for information about park openings and closings or did not care. There were droves of people traveling to our parks and met with inadequate or no services like open restrooms or trash receptacles. This led to the increase in litter, illegal parking and off-road vehicle use, and other damaging activities reported by local residents, who often expressed anger at the visitors desperate to utilize our shared natural resources.
Enough supervisory staff
One of the primary reasons reported for the state park closures was problems with sufficient staffing to meet the need, particularly in swimming areas. The state reported difficulty identifying and hiring staff to adequately supervise activities at the parks, from certified lifeguards to custodians. This is not a frivolous reason. Looking at New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection staffing since 2008, there were 3,240 full-time staff working, according to reports from the NJ Civil Service Commission (summer employees are included in these totals). Although park visitation has not decreased, and in fact has increased substantially in 2020, DEP staffing has decreased by approximately 17% since 2008. Without proper staffing, parks cannot provide the services and amenities necessary for the heavy usage they are receiving. So, how can we prepare for the upcoming parks season?
The DEP just announced a plan to hire 700 seasonal park workers. They need to start accepting applications now, in winter when our roads are snow-covered, to get everyone in place when they formally open in May for our trails to be filled with happy hikers. Parks need regular maintenance for trails, picnic areas and tables, playgrounds, beaches, marinas and docks, water delivery, sewage, trash collection, ranger services and policing, parking, etc. Among the jobs offered are naturalists, trail stewards, office personnel, lifeguards and general maintenance personnel.
Parks are not stagnant areas but need regular care and maintenance to ensure safe and sanitary conditions for every visitor. Inadequate staffing leads to park closures because the state cannot open parks that cannot accommodate visitors’ needs.
The parks need qualified, caring staff this spring, summer and fall, so please apply. If we want to continue to enjoy our precious resources, let’s staff our parks!