A stand of old-growth hemlocks with trunks nearly four feet in diameter towers over a trail cut along a creek shrouded in mountain laurel that ripples through Laurel Hill State Park, part of one of the largest state park systems in the nation. It rose from a Depression-era work program that employed young men desperate for income to build its camps, picnic spots, roads, trails, lake and dam. And money spent by visitors who come to camp, bike, snowmobile, swim, fish and hike on its 1,352 acres quietly fuels the economic ecosystem of surrounding communities.
“Now that the steel industry has vanished and coal is in decline, ecotourism has become the economic driver in Somerset County,” said Len Lichvar, manager of the Somerset Conservation District. “And that’s because of efforts put in place in the last few decades to enhance our land and water resources.”
Parks are prolific in Pennsylvania and range from Presque Isle on Lake Erie, one the nation’s most visited state parks, to Allegheny Islands, three tiny undeveloped islands on the Allegheny River in Harmar that can only be reached by boat. In total, the state’s portfolio of 121 state parks and 2.2 million acres of state forests occupies an area twice the size of Delaware.
“The state parks are the crown jewels of the Commonwealth,” said Davitt Woodwell, president of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “They’re used mostly for recreation, but they’re also a way to conserve and preserve access to the best natural settings we have.”
Liberal access to nature is a Pennsylvanian value that dates back to William Penn in the 17thcentury and is protected in the state constitution. And it has paid dividends, preserving the state’s natural beauty, burnishing its reputation as a vacation destination and contributing revenue to nearby communities, many of which are in remote parts of the state where economic opportunity is scarce. However, a serious budget shortfall clouds the park system’s future…