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Open Spaces for All
Jim Montgomery is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR), which oversees 450,000 acres of public land, state parks, beaches and open spaces across the Commonwealth and a staff of 1,000. We spoke with the Commissioner recently about Massachusetts’ popular outdoor facilities going into the summer season.
Tell us about your background and how you came to lead DCR.
I got involved in public service early on working in government in my native Illinois, eventually serving as Mayor of Taylorville, Illinois from1997 to 2005. After my last race I was fortunate to come to Boston to earn an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. My wife and I moved the whole family to Massachusetts and quickly decided to put our roots down here. I joined the Baker-Polito Administration as DCR’s Director of Administration & Finance in 2016 after holding the same role at Boston EMS. I’ve been Commissioner for just about 15 months, and it’s been such a tremendous honor to work with the many dedicated women and men who have kept our parks going throughout the pandemic.
Give our readers a quick recap of DCR properties.
The Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for 450,000 acres of public land from the Berkshire to the Boston Harbor Islands spread across 100+ parks, reservations and properties. In these lands, DCR maintains more than 30 campgrounds, dozens of playgrounds, ballfields and playing courts, and manages 130+ coastal and inland beaches, swimming pools, and spray decks. DCR is also responsible for more than 550 miles of parkways, 145 miles of bike and rail trails, and nearly 300 bridges across Massachusetts.
In addition, DCR oversees the state’s forestry and forest fire control efforts, and 150,000 acres of watershed lands that protect the drinking water of 2.5 million residents who rely upon the Quabbin, Wachusett, and Sudbury Reservoirs and the Ware River Watershed. All of this is done with a staff of roughly 1,000 full-time and seasonal employees.
Over the past year, residents and visitors took full advantage of our system of parks and open spaces. How many people used the DCR properties during the pandemic?
While DCR does not keep exact park attendance numbers, field staff have observed a marked increase in visitors since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports during the pandemic months, visits to public parks have increased substantially compared to the baseline average from previous years. Going as far back as June 2020 show a 99% increase in park visitorship while other retail and recreation locations were seeing a 15% decrease in visitors. In a county-by-county breakdown you see most counties had well over a 100% increase in park visitations. By August 2020 that percentage increased to 178% and by the end of September 2020, park visitorship remained up by 52% while retail and recreation visits were down 19% and workplaces had a 38% decrease. By the end of October there was still a 36% increase compared to the baseline for parks. By April 2021, the warming weather saw a 46% percent increase in park visitation. And as of May 24, 2021, these reports are showing a 50% increase in park visitation all around the Commonwealth.
With Massachusetts Reopening now in its final phase, what can visitors and visitors expect this summer as they continue to enjoy our open spaces?
As the summer 2021 season begins, the public will see many changes at DCR parks, beaches, pools, and playgrounds. May COVID-19 restrictions and regulations are being eased in accordance with the Baker-Politio Administration’s re-opening guidelines. Because there are many different situations and regulations that are constantly changing, we encourage the public to pay close attention to the state’s Reopening guidelines webpage, and please continue to heed any safety signage at DCR properties this summer.
Do you have a favorite DCR spot you’d like to share with our readers?
It’s hard to just pick one spot – it’s like asking which of the children is my favorite! The breadth and diversity of our properties really does make it hard to choose just one. It’s amazing to think of the diversity of opportunities from the Cape Cod Rail Trail to the Boston Harbor Islands and out to the peaks of Mount Holyoke and Mount Greylock.
I’ve loved learning about the park system and seeing new places each time I travel around the state. Whether you want to explore the rich history of the Commonwealth or participate in recreational activities from boating to hiking to kayaking to skating, we have year-round opportunities for everyone here in Massachusetts!
Thank you, Commissioner!
Visit the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) website for more details.