The Green State Parks Initiative: Utilizing Pennsylvania State Parks as a Case Study


  • Cory St. Esprit
  • Langdon Smith


Sustainability, parks, state parks, recreation


State parks have long lived under the shadow of national parks, although most Americans have spent more time at these “lesser” recreational areas. In 2009, more than 725 million people visited state parks across the country—more than twice the number who went to national parks (DCNR, 2009b). In some cases, generations have grown up making pilgrimages to their favorite lake on summer weekends, which in all likelihood was developed as a state park. The value of state parks is even more obvious in the eastern United States, because of the lack of federal public lands. The benefits to society as a whole from such natural settings has been well documented and some have argued that visitors to these protected areas develop bonds with these places that extend far beyond the public land management paradigm centered on resource extraction and recreation activities (Davenport, Baker, Leahy, & Anderson, 2010, p. 53). Unfortunately, many state park facilities are experiencing the dual threats of decreased visitation and heavy budget cuts. Nationwide, state park visitation declined by roughly one million annual visitors between 2004 and 2009 (DCNR, 2009b). In Pennsylvania, for example, the number of visitors to the Commonwealth’s 117 state park facilities dropped from 36.3 million visitors per year to 34.1 million visitors between 2005 and 2008 (Dysinger, 2010). With state governments facing challenging budget shortfalls, many state park agencies have witnessed severe budget cuts. Pennsylvania’s budget for state parks was slashed from $219 million per year in 2008 to $157 million in 2010. These cuts have led to cancelation of environmental education programs, reduction of seasonal staff, and shortened summer seasons (DCNR, 2009b). As park managers struggle with both declining visitor numbers and budget cuts, some help may come from embracing components within the rapidly growing sustainability movement. “Sustainability” and “green” have become worldwide buzzwords. The concept of sustainability has emerged in the past thirty years as a leading framework for understanding economic development, community development, and natural resource management around the world (Schlossberg & Zimmerman, 2003), and state park agencies should not be independent from this movement. By playing a more active role in sustainability, through demonstration projects and education programs, state parks have an opportunity to become more relevant to solving problems that concern Americans today. Embracing methods to conserve energy through green building design or policy changes, and working to develop alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar projects, also have the added benefit of saving scarce budget dollars. The purpose of this case study was to examine sustainability initiatives that are in place within Pennsylvania state parks. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), is currently implementing a number of sustainable building design techniques, alternative and renewable energy projects, sustainable park planning methods, and sustainability education programs and workshops. These initiatives have been used as an attempt to both increase visitation, and to decrease park expenditures. Through these efforts, DCNR has emerged as a leader in the green parks initiative and has become a valuable resource to other state park agencies on how to develop their own sustainability programs (K. Bisbee, personal communication, January 29, 2010). There are numerous ways in which recreation and park facilities can implement sustainability practices to educate visitors on personal practices, encourage visitation to the parks, and decrease the park’s operating costs on an already decreased budget.