Last month in Rector, PA, staff from six state parks around the Laurel Highlands gathered at Powdermill Nature Reserve. The gathering was the first of its kind for the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape since the onset of the pandemic, and attendees were eager to meet and share ideas face-to-face.
Such interactions have been the goal of the LHCL Front Line Staff Training Partnership since its inception in 2018. Ken Bisbee, Park Manager at Ohiopyle State Park, describes the mission as a way “to educate our front-line staff about the other parks and attractions in their area and get an opportunity to experience and visit some of the sites.” This cross-pollination of resources and knowledge that is so foundational to the goals of the LHCL was absent in 2020 despite record levels of park usership. The training was an opportunity to revitalize critical connections across the Laurel Highlands region at a time when connection was more difficult than ever.
Bisbee and his cohort of staff from Ohiopyle attended the event along with personnel representing Linn Run, Keystone, Kooser, Laurel Ridge and Laurel Hill State Parks. Despite the challenges of taking time away from the park, Kris Baker of Keystone State Park stressed the importance of getting staff out to other sites in the Laurel Highlands and hearing different perspectives. The events are popular among staff, who are sometimes surprised to learn about little-known attractions just down the road from their own parks, and always eager to share their new knowledge with park visitors.
“Staff fight over who gets to come,” said Baker.
An invaluable gift
Speaking for Linn Run State Park, newly appointed park manager Corey Snyder opened the program by reviewing some of the most attractive and unique features the quiet park near Stahlstown has to offer, including a thriving native brook trout fishery, scenic waterfalls, and a unique opportunity to collect fresh spring water. Ken Bisbee then enlightened the group on Ohiopyle’s colorful history on its route to classification as a state park. A mecca for paddlers since the 1960s, Pennsylvania’s largest state park is home to some of the most powerful and stunning water features in the northeastern U.S. Less well known but equally significant, Bisbee noted, are the area’s rich biodiversity and distinctive geological makeup.
Hearing these testimonials, listeners are reminded that our state park system is an invaluable gift to the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Keystone State Park in Westmoreland County has garnered a reputation distinct from other parks in the Laurel Highlands. Kris Baker, who spoke on the park’s behalf, told the group that Keystone stands apart both geographically and functionally. Historically popular among swimmers, boaters, and campers, Baker said the park’s growing network of land and water trails is beginning to shift the paradigm, attracting a new and more diverse assortment of day-users.
Kim Peck from the Laurel Hill complex provided some quick hitting facts on all three parks managed by Laurel Hill. Kooser State Park’s highly accessible location makes a great stopping point for travelers, while Laurel Ridge — the northern terminus of the renowned Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail — is one of the premier backpacking destinations in the state. Hearing these testimonials, listeners are reminded that our state park system is an invaluable gift to the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Busier than ever
One constant in the presentations was the theme of dramatically heightened use. From pandemic surges to more gradual altering of societal behaviors and tendencies, the public are getting outdoors and using state parks more than ever before. Linn Run now regularly sees more than a quarter million visitors annually, while Ohiopyle draws more than 1.5 million. Keystone has seen jumps from roughly 500,000 visitors a year to more than 700,000, with some summer days drawing 10,000 cars. In December 2020, Laurel Ridge recorded a 300% increase in winter use. Across these parks, campsites and cottages are being booked to capacity months in advance.
Representing GO Laurel Highlands (the newly rebranded Laurel Highlands Visitor’s Bureau) was Kristen Ecker, who highlighted the resources available to frontline staff via golaurelhighlands.com. While it can seem impossible to stay up to date on all the Laurel Highlands has to offer, Ecker said, the GO LH team is committed to providing the most complete and user-friendly database possible.
With [park] use on the rise, it is more important than ever to collaborate across geographic and societal boundaries to find creative solutions to new questions.
The final word on this informative day came from our gracious hosts, with remarks from Powdermill director John Wenzel. Despite its modest size and remote location, Wenzel told the group, the reserve is known internationally for its research and education programs, but somewhat less visible locally as a destination for visitors. After walking the grounds and hearing directly from staff, though, participants left with a more comprehensive understanding of the site and its many attractions, from beautiful hikes to the longest lasting bird banding program in the world.
Luke Babik is a student at Penn State and a summer 2021 intern at PEC’s western regional office.