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Short-staffed and strapped for cash, state parks struggle to handle surge of warm-weather crowds

Marvin Orellana lounged with his daughter in one hammock, his nephews in the other, at the Cochituate State Park in Natick.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

NATICK — On a picturesque Sunday afternoon, Cochituate State Park was in high demand. Nearly every picnic table was taken, kids played on the lakeside beach, and smoke from a dozen barbecues mingled in the air with strains of Spanish and Portuguese music. By a little after 3 p.m., the parking lot was full, and the staff closed the gates.

State parks have enjoyed a renaissance during the pandemic, and this spring, crowds have surged to public beaches, trails, and campsites in unprecedented numbers. While state officials do not keep an exact count of visitors, they point to Google mobility data that show a 29 percent increase in movement to and from parks over the past few weeks, compared to a pre-pandemic baseline.

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But what should be a crowning moment for the state park system has been undercut by budget woes and severe staffing shortages, employees and recreational advocates say. With an influx of visitors stretching parks to their limits, years of underfunding and understaffing, combined with a historically tight labor market, are taking their toll.

“We’re at that breaking point right now, and eventually the public is going to see it,” said Brad Gallant, a field operations team leader at Otter River State Forest in Templeton and 37-year veteran of the parks service. “We’re just trying to put a Band-Aid on everything.”

While there are signs that this year’s state budget may provide relief for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages more than 140 parks, reservations, reservoirs, and beaches, many fear it may come too late to avert issues during the summer rush. In May, the agency posted more than 1,500 open seasonal positions on its Instagram account, and more than 400 positions remain open.

“No one is applying to work,” an exasperated park employee said as he waved cars through the gate at a state park recently. With fewer than half the park’s positions filled, workers have been logging increasingly long hours to get everything done, said the employee, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

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Gallant, president of AFSCME Local 2948, a union that represents DCR employees outside the Boston area, said he will be running 230 campsites at Otter River with 16 employees, half the usual staff. One employee has already worked 32 hours of overtime in a week, he said.

DCR officials declined interview requests. In a statement, the agency touted its successful efforts to hire more lifeguards this summer by increasing wages, and encouraged people to apply for jobs.

Cochituate State Park, and other parks, are suffering from a lack of staff and funding.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

But employees and union leaders said the agency’s staffing shortages are years in the making.

“The current labor market exacerbates things,” said Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 93, which oversees the state’s two DCR employee unions. “But this is a longstanding, deep-rooted problem that originated more than 20 years ago.”

A state-commissioned report released in December found that full-time staff at DCR has dropped by 300 since 2009, about 25 percent. In response, DCR has increased the ranks of long-term seasonal workers by about 100 since 2014, the report found.

But because long-term seasonal employees receive fewer benefits, relying on them has made DCR more vulnerable to shifts in the job market, union officials said.

“We train these people and brought them up, if you will, and now that we can’t give them full-time employment, they go elsewhere” said Kevin Drake, a DCR field operations team leader at the Blue Hills Reservation and president of AFSCME Local 3485, which represents DCR employees in the Boston area.

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Adjusted for inflation, DCR’s budget has fallen 16 percent since 2009, and by 2016 the department had $1 billion in deferred maintenance costs, according to the report. All told, local and state governments in Massachusetts spend less on parks per capita than any other state, the special commission found.

In response to the budget cuts, DCR has increasingly relied on “retained revenues,” such as campsite and parking fees, which has “sparked concerns over impacts to accessibility and equity,” the report found.

“The need for investment is urgent,” said Laura Jasinski, a member of the special commission and executive director of the Charles River Conservancy. “A solution is really needed to address [global] warming, heat islands, flooding. All of these things — it really needs to happen at the DCR level.”

Connor Mulready collected the $8.00 parking fee at Cochituate. Seasonal workers have become hard to find.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The growing popularity of the state’s parks during the pandemic has put the budget problems in sharp relief. Near Lake Cochituate, J.P. and Jennifer Matychak, of Natick, walked their yellow Labrador on the Cochituate Rail Trail. J.P. Matychak estimated they have visited state parks 50 percent more often during the pandemic.

It’s “been a safe way to get out with people,” he said.

Further down the trail, Kevin and Berlyn Ovalle sat with their three young children. Before the pandemic, the family would go to the beach at Cochituate State Park, but it’s gotten too crowded, they said.

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But many people enjoying the trails and beach said the funding and staffing problems were not evident. That’s a credit to the workers, said Chris Maietta, co-founder of Friends of Cochituate State Park.

“The staff are extremely stretched, but they still manage to keep a smile on their faces,” he said. “They are masters of making do.”

Help may be on the way. The Senate Ways and Means Committee’s budget proposal includes $85 million for DCR, about a $10 million increase, according to Doug Pizzi, executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters

Like many other parks, Cochituate State Park has seen an upswing in demand this year.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

DCR could receive another $258 million for deferred maintenance if the Legislature passes Governor Charlie Baker’s spending proposal for federal relief funds. The state has a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” to invest in the parks, Pizzi said. “And I’m hopeful that’s going to happen.”

State Senator Mike Rush, who chairs the Legislature’s parks caucus, said the perception that state government has neglected DCR is false. The problems were born of the 2003 departmental merger that created DCR, he said.

”You look at the amount of property and assets that they control; it’s an untenable task for any agency,” he said. “It calls for a robust discussion as to steps moving forward.”

Rush said “time will tell” if a budget increase is in the offing this time around.

“Obviously, those of us who care deeply about our state parks system are hoping that it will,” he said.

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Alexander Thompson can be reached at alexander.thompson@globe.com