The sense of purpose in her voice was unmistakable. Onnolee Jansen, the Environmental Education Supervisor at Kings Gap Environmental Education Center, was discussing the pandemic and how the last year impacted her work. She has been with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for nearly six years and said, “Our services were more important than ever last year. We helped many first-time visitors feel comfortable and safe in nature.”

Onnolee told me that many of those attending the Center’s educational programs last year were making their first-ever visit to a state park. Some families who lived nearby to Kings Gap had never even heard of the park; others simply had not found the time to visit. A global pandemic changed that. With indoor restrictions in place, those families and thousands of others went looking for safe ways to socialize. Onnolee credits word of mouth and social media with helping to fuel the increased awareness. At Kings Gap, attendance was up by 43% over the previous year. Statewide, the 26% average increase in park visits shattered all previous records.

In the Tiadaghton Forest District, Ranger Stacy Duffield said that she and her colleagues helped first-time visitors understand what to expect when recreating on forest lands.

“Visitors needed to know what to carry on a hike and we helped them understand why it’s important to let others know where they were going,” she said. “Most who regularly visit know the rules and what they’re doing, but last year we were educating on where to go and what to do.”

In her 22 years with DCNR, she had not seen anything like it. The challenges, she said, are exactly what she signed up for. Since she was 11 years old, her focus was to be a forest ranger. “To get paid to do what you love is pretty cool,” she added.

July 16 is Parks and Recreation Professionals Day.  Onnolee and Stacy – along with the thousands of other park staff across the Commonwealth – personify the very best of what we celebrate and recognize on that day (and hopefully all year long!).  I know I am biased because I have the honor of working alongside these professionals in my role at DCNR, but I am pretty confident you will agree that these are talented and dedicated folks who see their work as more of a calling than a job. And, to understand that we have to remember the context in which they serve.

The laws of the Commonwealth entrust DCNR as the steward of 121 state parks and 2.2 million acres of forests. Add in the fact that every Pennsylvanian is guaranteed in the state Constitution the right to clean air, water, and the enjoyment of our natural resources, and you will see why the weight of that responsibility is felt. Each of the 1,247 full time employees at DCNR (and an equivalent number of seasonal workers) knows of that sacred trust, and each has a love for the resources that runs deep. In most cases, it is what attracted them to state government work in the first place.

Bilal Baqai left a private consulting company five years ago to join DCNR’s Bureau of Facilities, Design and Construction, the unit responsible for the vast infrastructure found on our public lands. Bilal is an engineer and wanted to focus on bridge design. DCNR provided that chance, but there was something equally as attractive pulling him in.

“I’m an outdoors person and love camping, hiking, and kayaking. Being able to combine those interests with my educational background is exciting,“ Bilal said.

His story is a familiar one. Parks and recreational staff spend their work hours focused on many of the same things that they enjoy in their personal time. It is true not just for DCNR employees but those who work at local municipal and community parks as well (there are more than 6,100 local parks in Pennsylvania!). Adam Mattis helps those local park staff in his role in the DCNR Bureau of Recreation and Conservation. His input helps direct some of the millions of dollars in grants that DCNR awards to communities each year, and he is inspired by their passion.

“Their desire to serve the community and make it a better place to live is really something,” said Adam. “It’s definitely a calling for most.”  That vocation is what we recognize and celebrate on July 16. Just as we give thanks for the gift of our public lands, we know they require a lot of attention, and the visitors deserve a welcome and safe environment. We have seen over this past year just how important both are. They are a collective investment to protect our environment, improve our heath, and better our quality of life. Yes, we can measure the impacts (over $29 billion generated by outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania alone), but we cannot put a price tag on all the other benefits they provide—or the memories created.

I can remember visiting my first state park a few years after we moved to Pennsylvania, when I was in grade school. My brother had bought a canoe and decided we would go to Marsh Creek State Park for its maiden voyage. That memory has stayed with me, just as they do for the families who decided to visit Kings Gap last year to participate in the StoryWalk program that Onnolee helped launch. Each new memory confirms that our public lands are a gift that keeps on giving – and so are the men and women who care for them.

“Parks are key to people’s overall well-being, during the pandemic and even now,” said Onnolee. “I’m glad we are here to provide that to the people in our area.”

I couldn’t agree more. On July 16, and throughout the year, let us give a big shout out to all who work on our public lands and to those at DCNR who support the work of protecting and preserving our public lands.

Happy Parks and Recreation Professionals Day!

Michael Walsh, Deputy Secretary for Administration,
PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Mike Walsh joined DCNR in June, 2015. His experience includes over two decades working in both the legislative and executive branches of state government and serving in appointed positions under three governors. In his current role as Deputy Secretary for Administration at DCNR, Mike is responsible for the human resources, budget, and information technology operations of the agency.

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