SKOWHEGAN – As the 75th anniversary of Maine state parks system draws to a close, one thing is clear: Maine people love and value their state parks.

More than 2.5 million people visited the 48 state parks and historic sites in 2010, the largest attendance in recent years. More seasonal vehicle passes sold this year than in any of the previous 10 years.

As the manager of a locally operated park, I see firsthand the role that access to a beautiful place and affordable recreation plays in our health and well-being. As a lawmaker, I appreciate the role that parks play in our economy.

The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center found that visits to the state parks have an impact on Maine’s economy of more than $95 million every year. This fiscal year, the Bureau of Parks and Lands so far has returned $3.4 million, more funds than ever in its history, to Maine’s General Fund.

Park staff always has been dedicated and hospitable. This year, BPL made a concerted effort to provide more information about the wonderful places in its care, especially through the Maine State Parks Passport.

USING THEIR PASSPORTS

More than 75,000 passports have been distributed, and 25 families have completed their passports, earning a 2011 season pass by visiting all 48 destinations and the four corners of Maine in the process. Another 45 families have visited 40 park sites.

Don’t worry if you haven’t finished yours yet; this fun and creative program will continue in the future.

During this anniversary year, parks also have offered more programs that showcase the special features and beauty of our parks, from ice fishing derbies to birding festivals to Civil War re-enactments to fall foliage hikes. And visitors have responded, turning out in droves to enjoy fresh air and be more physically active.

Maintaining park infrastructure is a real necessity to preserve our valued past and ensure our future. In 2007, voters approved a $7.5 million bond to invest in the state parks; by this year, a total of 26 projects at 19 locations across the state were completed, creating an estimated 450 construction jobs and enhancing visitor experience.

Investment produces results. Peaks-Kenny State Park in Dover-Foxcroft has benefited from about $1 million in investments in recent years, and this year experienced a 30 percent increase in attendance — an increase that benefits rural Piscataquis County when visitors buy supplies and explore the area.

Customers have given rave reviews to the new bathhouses and shower buildings, the new group shelter at Lake St. George State Park and the six new playgrounds at such parks as Bradbury Mountain and Sebago Lake.

In November, voters strongly supported a bond question to provide $500,000 that can draw down federal funds to complete $1 million in renovations, a down payment on the estimated $33 million in need.

Far from being static, the parks are ever changing to meet today’s needs. With the support of the Land for Maine’s Future program and a generous donation in value by a neighboring land owner, Aroostook State Park, Maine’s first, expanded by 145 acres — land available for hiking, hunting, cross-country skiing and other recreation.

Work continues to develop the Androscoggin Riverlands, nearly 3,000 acres of open space that lies within an hour’s drive of half the state’s population.

One of the most exciting new developments is the completion of the Down East Sunrise Trail, an 85-mile multiuse trail in rural Hancock and Washington counties.

Owned by the Department of Transportation and operated by BPL, the trail already is drawing snowmobilers, ATV riders and bicyclists Down East to enjoy a good long ride with spectacular scenery — and stimulate the local economy while they’re at it.

LEGACY OF THE PAST

The benefits we enjoy today were made possible by the foresight of our predecessors. In 1923, Gov. Percival Baxter purchased eight forts from the federal government for $19,479.

In 1935, the Legislature created the Maine State Parks Commission so that all Maine people could have a place to relax, recreate and spend time with friends and family.

In 1938, a group of Presque Isle business owners donated 100 acres to create Aroostook State Park, knowing that their gift would benefit the community for years to come.

As we enter the next decade, let’s invest in our state parks and historic sites — in staff, in programs, in facilities — so these gems can pay dividends to our physical health, our mental health, our communities and our economy for years to come.