CN Column 04/16/10: Fee hike will discourage park use

I love the Connecticut state park system. As I mentioned in passing in a previous column, I spent a summer working as a landscaper and maintainer at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford, West Rock Ridge State Park on the border of Hamden and New Haven and various smaller, satellite boat launches and pull-offs in adjoining towns.

While cleaning up after litterbug park visitors was not my favorite part of the job, the seasonal position was a suitable crash course about where nearby outdoor recreation opportunities were to be had. And if you’re not aware, there are dozens—for example, a network of variably difficult hiking trails leading to a breathtaking vista overlooking New Haven County at Sleeping Giant, a quaint lakefront beach and excellent trout fishing at Wharton Brook and precarious but rewarding bluff-side trails at West Rock.

And I couldn’t count on both hands the number of fond memories I have of stoking campfires, washing down burgers and dogs with cold suds and fishing—and all in good company—at Kettletown State Park in Southbury or Hammonassett State Park in Madison.

Were you to ask anyone who knew me circa 2005, he’d affirm that I was indeed the in-house master fisherman of what motley crew of half-cocked sportsmen I could cull on any given Saturday. Or Sunday. … Nevermind. Any day. I was the one who stocked the tackle box, researched angling strategies, cut the bait (and applied it to the hook, in at least one case), maintained the gear, wrangled innumerable lures from trees and underwater snags and led the gang through an ongoing flirtation with surfcasting (which, if you didn’t know, is better than you’d expect along Long Island Sound).

These things used to be cheap. I mean really cheap. The parks only charge for parking on weekends, and at many it’s no secret that visitors can park outside of them and walk in for free. I also happen to know that at least half the time, if you claim to have no money (in my case, it was normally less of a claim and more of a sad reality) and not know there’s a parking fee, most attendants will let you in anyway—especially if you have a canoe lashed to your vehicle.

A freshwater fishing license then cost $20. Saltwater fishing required no license at all.

Camping, to my recollection, then cost between $12 and $20 per site, per night for up to four people, depending on the park. Yes, that meant an outlay of $3-5 per guy. Even the most cash-strapped among my friends could usually scrape it together. Add to that the cost of food, charcoal, drinks, firewood, gas for the trip etc. and I think it’s safe to say anyone could have had a pretty damn good night for about $25.

Comparatively speaking, movie tickets now cost between $10 and $15, and that’s good for only 90 minutes of entertainment. Add to that a snack from the concession counter and … well, you know that’s a racket. A night of bowling is no cheaper, especially if you play more than one or two games. A few drinks at the bar? Forget that noise.

Nothing really beats the relaxation that can be the byproduct of a night or two out in the woods—close enough to a car and a grocery store to enjoy some convenience, but far enough from your digital life to dampen the constant, Internet- and cable-news-induced headache. Car camping is a great way to connect with family and friends in an organic setting without taking out a second mortgage or scaring the kids with the prospect of complete disconnection. It’s a hobby that pays dividends.

My love for this quasi-outdoorsy recreation (I do like real camping, too; it’s just more of a logistical challenge and thus not as leisurely, at least to me) is the prime reason I found myself quite enraged last October when the state announced the Department of Environmental Protection would increase all fees related to recreation. Everything that had been assessed at less than $150 is now doubled. That means a fishing license will run you $40 (opening day for trout fishing is Saturday). A campsite for a night will run you anywhere between $25 and $40 a night. Parking fees, reservation fees for said campsites, rentals of facilities like picnic pavilions and admission to state park museums have all increased, as well.

The reason for the increase is obvious: The state is trying to make ends meet.

But is it really fair to even further discourage the recreational use of our beautiful public lands? Wouldn’t we all like to see more kids and families recreating outdoors instead of playing video games or watching TV?

The state’s budget is wracked by what many are now calling the Great Recession. That much goes without saying. But legislators should take notice that people, like governments, are also struggling, and a lot of people will be looking to vacation and recreate on the cheap this summer. Camping at state parks has always been a great way to do that.

It is still cheaper, nightly, to rent campsites in the park system than it is to stay in a hotel. But not by quite as much.


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