Volume XVII, Issue 15 - April 9 - April 15, 2009

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Flashing lights atop a patrol car are not appropriate campground amenities.

Prohibition Returns

In 2010, Maryland state parks go (mostly) dry

We’re tenting tonight on the old campground,
Give us a song to cheer
Our weary hearts.

–Walter Kittredge, 1864

Drink and music go together: Drink fosters the urge to sing — or listen to loud music; singing requires wet vocal chords. But meanwhile many other campers want the peace and quiet that bring the sleep needed to reenergize bodies for hikes, fishing, escorting kids to playgrounds and nature trails on the morrow. Pretty much during the lifetime of the state park system the policy has been to mix campers, despite their differing plans for the night.

Matching campers would be virtually impossible as those who sign up for tent, trailer, motor home and other campsites all have different ideas of what a true camping experience should be like.

So drinkers and singers camped alongside sleepers in not-quite perfect harmony. Until last month. Then the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Park Service decided to ban the drinking of alcoholic beverages at state parks.

Soon the teetotalers will reign: No more drinking in the parks — except in top-of-the-line lodging or by $35 special-events permit.

But not until next year. In 2009, park managers are continuing the legality of drinking alcoholic beverages, primarily as a courtesy to those who had already booked cabin rentals or day-use pavilions and planned on serving alcohol. It would not have been fair to change the rules after accepting the bookings. Next year it will all be Prohibition — though we can hope with no Elliott Nesses, J. Edgar Hoovers or Melvin Purvises sneaking around to peek into those foam-insulated sleeves that keep cans cool, then busting the campsite speakeasies.

The Road to Soda Pop

As could be expected, the exclusions have brought accusations that park policy is being changed in favor of the hoity-toity who can afford full-service cabins or a sizeable chunk of cash for the permit.

Perhaps it would have been better had park authorities held a series of public meetings to clear the air of misconceptions before formalizing the ban. So far, however, fewer than 20 citizens have complained about the new policy, Park Superintendent Nita Settina told me. Camping season doesn’t get busy until May.

Surely more gripes can be expected when campers find that in years to come they’ll have to fill those coffin-sized coolers with nothing stronger than iced tea or soda pop. But the Park Service is intent on the course taken by state campgrounds in more than 20 other states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Superintendent Settina tells me the alcohol ban did not come from nowhere like a bolt from the blue. It had been discussed as well as policy in other states reviewed. “We needed it,” she says.

Gradually though consistently, behavior patterns in state parks were slipping, and more than a bit of it could be attributed to drinking, not infrequently involving music and song that kept neighboring campers awake.

Even so, Settina tells me that not all disturbances and annoyances can be blamed on partying. There have been occasions when domestic disputes associated with alcohol have spilled over in campgrounds, which can ruin a night for all in the loop. The Maryland Park Service wants to lessen both the impact and the probability of such incidents. Flashing lights atop a patrol car are not appropriate campground amenities.

As state campgrounds across the nation are forced to make appreciable budget cuts, there are fewer patrols of camp loops. The hour it can take for park police to respond to a call for help is enough time for a situation to get out of hand.

Probably most important of all: The new policy makes it very plain that patrols have the authority to nip any drink-related incident in the bud. They have been given the tools needed to bring tranquility to public campgrounds.

May they use them wisely.

Living by the Law

What is needed as Prohibition moves ahead is more common trust. Campers must be able to trust campground police to be fair and reasonable, not to go snooping for baked cherries jubilee and other flammable desserts, or perhaps a bottle of fine wine saved for a 50th anniversary. Those patrolling and managing campgrounds must trust their patrons are primarily intent on obeying rules implemented for the majority. Otherwise, the result will be that worn, old concept that laws — like records — are made to be broken.

Enough said.