Great weather and great activities equaled great fun for many children and families who got outside at Maine’s state parks during the past three months to enjoy the kick off events for the park system’s 75th anniversary year.

Initial figures show that more than 4,200 people attended the eight opening winter events held under the auspices of the “Take It Outside” initiative at different venues around the state. Many more visitors have returned to the parks on following days, according to staff reports, after discovering that Maine’s parks offer year-round recreation.

“These initial winter events have accomplished just what we hoped they would do, especially during our anniversary year,” said Acting Commissioner Eliza Townsend of the Maine Department of Conservation (MDOC). “They have reconnected children with the outdoors in healthy and fun ways and reminded Maine residents of the outstanding recreational facilities that they own. We’ve also shown that Maine parks offer affordable ways to have a great experience any time of the year.”

“Over the past two to three years, since ‘Take It Outside’ began, we’ve been offering an increasing number and variety of winter events, and they seem to be well received at every turn,” said Will Harris, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL), under the MDOC. “We’re very pleased with the response by visitors and the pleasure they get from our events. You don’t see any frowning faces — just smiling faces.”

There are 48 state parks and historic sites, plus almost 600,000 acres of public lands, in Maine under the BPL’s supervision. More than 2.3 million people visited the state parks in 2009. Economic figures show that the state parks have a $100 million annual impact on the state’s economy.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the State Parks Commission by the Maine Legislature in 1935. Park staffers have been organizing events starting this winter season in recognition of the anniversary year and are continuing to do so throughout the regular park season, which starts in May.

The “Take It Outside” initiative was implemented several years ago by Gov. John E. Baldacci as a means of encouraging children and families to get outside and enjoy nature for health and recreation benefits. Numerous events, including a statewide conference and many recreational activities, have held in keeping with the initiative.

Since January, major events have been held around Maine at state parks. The top-drawing event was a children’s ice fishing derby held in February at Range Ponds State Park in Poland Spring that drew 1,100 participants.

Other well-attended events included a youth ice fishing derby in January at Lake St. George State Park in Liberty that drew 600 visitors; Winter Family Fun Days at Cobscook Bay State Park in Washington County and Aroostook State Park that each drew 500 and 700 visitors in January and February; and last weekend, a Family Fun Day at Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park in South Berwick that drew 750 visitors.

“We’ve done just what we wanted to do,” Harris said, “reconnect kids and their families with the parks and the outside in the winter time.”

The events have had a number of positive effects, including what is being called “a halo effect” of visitors returning to the parks after the events, once they become aware of what year-round recreational opportunities they offer, Harris said. The events also have energized park staff members, who have been pleased to see how appreciated and valued the parks are by those who visit, the park director said.

Harris also acknowledged the extensive community support that has come from numerous volunteers who have participated in the events, either by contributing to the activities or providing logistical support. He also recognized the support from the primary sponsors, including Hannaford Supermarkets, Poland Spring Water, Wicked Joe Coffee and the Maine Winter Sports Center.

“Their efforts have been invaluable in making these special events a success,” Harris said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“Now we’re looking forward to spring and summer,” Harris said, pointing out that reservations for the 12 state campgrounds “are coming right in” for the upcoming camping season.

The BPL director listed some of the other activities planned for regular park season, including guided hikes for National Trails Day in June and a major bird-watching festival, also in June, at Aroostook State Park. Other special events include Maine Day, when Maine residents get free admission to all parks and sites; the Battle at Fort Knox, also in July, at Fort Knox State Historic Site, and the Small Reach Regatta in July at Lamoine State Park. Numerous living-history and interpretative events also are being planned for the season.

In addition, the First-Time Campers program will return for its third year, allowing Maine families who have never camped to experience a weekend of camping at a state park. Information on the program will be made available shortly, Harris said.

“We’ve been tremendously pleased with the numbers and the response to all that we’ve been offering,” Harris said. “We’re gearing up for a banner season, and we invite everyone to come out, because everyone can find something to like at our state parks.”

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