COOK FOREST — Cook Forest Park officials held an infrastructure tour to highlight some of the needs of the park.
Park Manager Ryan Borcz lead the tour, stopping at five locations around the park to show some of the most visible areas of need. These included children’s playground equipment at one of the camp sites, a walking bridge that has been shut down for safety, and a camp site bathroom/shower house.
Many of the structures around the park were built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who were employed to restore the nation’s natural resources. These CCC workers built most of the park infrastructure from 1933 to about 1938. This makes most of the buildings in the park about 80 to 90 years old.
The Log Cabin Inn is one of the buildings these men built. It served as living quarters, then later as a restaurant, according to the DCNR website. Today, the building is the environmental learning center in the park with educational displays about animals and early logging and lumber industry.
“A lot of these structures were built for the CCC boys. They were built for the boys while they were doing the work that they did in our state parks and forest. That’s what they were intended for, and here we are 90 years later still using them for outdoor recreation...,” Kevin Blair said.
Blair went on to explain that the infrastructure needs often get pushed back further and further on the list because they spend so much time with the upkeep that has to be done. They have to focus on health and safety needs above everything else, like sewage lines in the ground. The visitor amenities that also need updating end up being temporarily fixed to keep up with it all.
“We’re doing more and more with less and less people and as that infrastructure ages, we continue to gain more responsibilities... And they do more with less everyday,” Blair said.
The park office was recently moved to a new building that was constructed behind the old park office. This building was made a priority because the old park office often experienced flooding, which had gotten worse over the last few years of heavy rain. Some of their historic documents were getting damaged because of the repeated water damage to the building.
Jake Scheib, the assistant district manager with the Bureau of Forestry, also talked about the upkeep of roads around the park. He said there are 71 miles of roads that have to be maintained, and some of the equipment used is from the 1980s.
“We have to maintain those roads to give the public access to the state forest system. Many of those roads were built by the CCC folks, so you can imagine what we’re working with,” Scheib said.
Parks and Forest Foundation President Marci Mowery mentioned that many of the bridges in and around the park had exceeded their lifespans. Most of the bridges were built with a 50-year lifespan, and are still being used 64 years later. These bridges are more than just walking route bridges, some of them are part of homeowners main route to get to and from their home.
One of the stops on the tour was a foot bridge that connects hiking paths. It is a 67-foot long bridge, and was closed after an inspection by an engineer. The concern with this bridge specifically is pocket rust. There are many other similar bridges along Tom’s Run through the park. The stop on the tour is a particularly popular bridge used often for photography. Three similar bridges have been taken out of service in Clear Creek State Park, and two are being replaced. This is the first one that has been closed in Cook Forest State Park.
“This along with five others, I’m certain will have to be replaced in the next five, maybe 10 years,” Ryan Borcz said.
This bridge specifically gives hikers access to the old growth without having to take the strenuous walk to the Forest Cathedral.
Another focus point of the tour were the children’s playgrounds around the park. The tour stopped at a specific playground that Borcz said will likely have to be closed at the end of the season.
“They’re such an important part of childhood development. I was just walking by a park recently and I heard this little girl, she had just climbed up this climbing apparatus and she said, ‘Look mommy, I climbed to the top of Mount Everest,’ and that’s the imagination that one of the proponents of why playgrounds are so important,” Mowery said.
The wood of the equipment is splintering, and fall material needs to be replaced at all the playgrounds to meet safety standards.
Another concern of the park officials are the showers at the camp sites. The tour stopped at Ridge Camp to show the typical showers around the park. The building is made of stone, which Borcz said is harder to keep clean than a newer tile shower would be.
The cement floors also heave seasonally with the cold weather. The ADA accessibility of the showers, and some other park facilities are questionable as well.
There are many ideas and plans for improvements to be made around the park, the main problem is how to find the funding for all the projects. Cook Forest is kept very busy, particularly over holiday weekends such as the recent Labor Day weekend. The camp sites were completely filled for the weekend, and the park workers want to keep the infrastructure up to date and functioning for the public.
Prioritization amongst the parks in Pennsylvania is difficult to predict. People will see other camps and parks getting upgrades, and question why one park is upgraded over another. The park officials explained that there is so much to be done all across all the parks, and the upgrades just happen at different times for different places.
They hope to be able to come up with solutions, and find ways of funding to keep the state parks up to the standards that both the park and the visitors deserve to have.