Patrick Sikes / For Hearst Connecticut Media

CT - As millions flock to Connecticut's state parks, lawmakers weigh placing new limits on crowds Photo of

Crowds gathered Tuesday at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison as temperatures rose into the 90s last summer. Attendance at Connecticut state parks remained close to 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels in 2022, according to early estimates by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

As many as 17 million people flocked to Connecticut’s state parks in 2022, filling parking lots, campgrounds and scenic areas to near-record levels for the third year in a row — and leaving some lawmakers to question whether the parks are equipped to handle the crowds.

Attendance at state parks shot up during the first year of the pandemic, despite strict capacity limits that were put in place at many parks to limit the spread of coronavirus. That phenomenon was shared by other states as well as the National Park Service, with many officials describing the sudden rush to the outdoors as a national example of “cabin fever.”

Even as regular, indoor activities have resumed over the last two years, however, officials say that park attendance remains 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

After welcoming 11 million visitors in 2019, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimates that between 16 and 17 million people entered state parks last year, according to spokesman Paul Copleman, who added that the agency’s early estimates put attendance on pace with the record levels set in 2021.

The steady tide of new visitors — combined with years of deferred maintenance costs — have prompted the common refrain from officials that some parks are “being loved to death.”

“We have treasured parks, but they’re very popular, especially on those hot summer days and we’re getting more of them because of climate change,” Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told lawmakers last week.

Concerns about DEEP’s ability to keep up with the tide of new visitors are reflected in a number of bills filed during the first month of this year’s legislative session, including proposals to cap attendance, increase staff to stop vandalism, as well as approving new state bonds for park improvements.

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