The state park system is thriving, with a 30% increase in visitors since 2013, according to Philip Bryce, director of the N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation, which includes 93 sites.
“It's nice because our mission is to get people outdoors, enjoying the outdoors, because it’s good for your health; it's good for your frame of mind, and it's wonderful to see that,” Bryce said on The Exchange. (For the full conversation, listen here.)
It’s also good for the park system's coffers. Hampton Beach attracts up to two million visitors in the summer, and Franconia Notch State Park provides almost half the revenue in the park system. That income helps fund the parks that don’t require entrance fees -- these account for about half the state's parks.
Some of the more popular areas can be a challenge to manage, keeping trails in good shape and nearby roads safe. That's been a concern for Exchange listener Bill, of Groton, who lives near Sculptured Rocks Natural Area.
“Last year when I was scrolling through Facebook, there were one hundred and fifteen thousand likes on a comment or a post about Sculptured Rock State Park. And it's a two lane road with no line down the middle. It just got washed out in a flood. And the traffic is insane.” -- Exchange Listener Bill of Groton.
Bryce said he understood the concern, and added that there had been similar problems at Livermore Falls in Holderness, with 40% of the town's police calls involving the site at one point. With the help and advocacy of volunteers in the area, the division got funding for a staffed parking lot and police calls have since been entirely eliminated.
Heavy use of Franconia Notch has also caused challenges. As parking lots filled, people began parking illegally on the interstate which Bryce said was dangerous due to the road’s very narrow shoulders and cars travelling at highway speeds. In response, the state Department of Transportation placed cones and barriers on the road and the park system now provides a shuttle to deliver people to the area for hikes.
“It’s a short trip; it costs $5 to offset some of the costs,” Bryce said. Still, the shuttle service is an expense, costing $50,000 this year.
"Now we've got to revisit that and say, all right, well, how are we going to go about funding this shuttle? $50,000 is almost what it costs to operate an average state park in New Hampshire. But for us, the biggest priority was the safety of our visitors."
Meanwhile, Bryce says he's open to considering another way to raise more money: increase fees on out-of-state visitors. About half of the state’s “day use” visitors are from Massachusetts, Bryce said. Right now, they pay the same park entrance fees as New Hampshire residents. That could change.
“One of the reasons the rates were the same is New Hampshire is so dependent upon the tourism industry that the logic was, we’ll just charge the same for everybody because we don't want to discourage our visitors,” he said. ”But we need to take another look at that now going forward and reach out to our public and then go through the legislative process to see if that's a good idea, particularly also for camping.”
Climate change and water quality issues.
Bryce said water quality has been a problem at beaches where geese congregate and leave their droppings. “We've had higher bacteria counts this year than we would like to. And that's always a struggle. And it's a struggle not for just for us, but for other park systems.”
Climate change meanwhile has caused dramatic changes to the landscape, requiring new infrastructure. “With more extreme weather events, two areas get hit hardest – the Seacoast, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage from a few years ago -- and the trail system. Your culverts need to be bigger now because the intensity of the storms is greater. And replacing bridges -- that’s where we really get hit.”
Water contamination, too, is worsened due to climate change, with heavy rainfall causing runoff into lakes and increasing risk of cyanobacteria And when it comes to winter, Bryce worries about sustaining winter sports, with the decline in snowfall.
Keeping an eye on a controversial landfill proposal.
Bryce said his Division is keeping track of a controversial landfill proposal in the town of Dalton, near Forest Lake State Park.
“We've also made it very clear to the Department of Environmental Services that, as an abutter, we want to be involved, fully involved in that process. It's not our decision, but we certainly want to understand what the impact is going to be on the park -- and to respond to the possible impacts. It’s up to DES to permit it and then the town can take other actions, as well. We are now receiving notifications as an abutter.”
The little things: picnic tables, fresh paint, clean restrooms.
Bryce is also responsible for the seemingly mundane structures that can also affect the visitor's experience.
“When I came on board, we were still in a deficit in the parks fund, and we needed to do something to show that it was worth investing in the park system and that you could make a difference by doing some small things,” he said.
“And so we started working on just refurbishing our picnic tables and making sure they're painted because, particularly for campers, they’re kind of the center of your universe. You don't want to have something that's rotten and falling apart and disgusting.”
It’s been an ongoing effort, he said, involving thousands of picnic tables.
“We can't always have a brand new one or a ten million dollar facility. But, as a visitor, when I show up, and I see that things are painted, that they're straight and level, that the weeds are trimmed back and it looks like it's cared for, it just creates such a better experience. And our staff gets that. And so they do pay attention to those details. And of course clean bathrooms.