As the nation has worked through the recession, few entities have felt good times. Maine’s park system is one.

On several fronts during the state park system’s 75th anniversary year, there was growth, new energy, excitement — and even surprising devotion.

Like the 25 families taking the first-time challenge to visit all state parks and historic sites — a total of 48 — to stamp their Parks Passport and qualify for a drawing for a free season pass.

Considering that Maine’s parklands stretch over an area the size of all the other New England states, that’s some love.

And there were another 45 families who visited 40 sites last year. More than 75,000 of the free booklets for the Parks Passport program were given out, so maybe more will get the bug.

The fact is more is being done at state parks and the public is responding.

The Take It Outside campaign, launched by the state in 2007, was expanded to the winter, and the eight festivals that offered dog sled rides and igloos drew 4,200.

Scott Thompson, manager of Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle, said its winter carnival now draws hundreds, and the locals return to cross-country ski and go winter camping.

All told, 2.5 million people visited state parks in 2010 — the most in about a decade, said Eliza Townsend, the outgoing commissioner of the Department of Conservation.

That sounds like some new energy.

“It’s a case study in how people appreciate our natural resources,” Townsend said.

There are even more concrete examples of Mainers taking new ownership of their state parks.

The First Time Campers Program — launched in 2008 — sent 40 families to one of 12 state parks to stay overnight with free equipment, two years after 32 families learned to camp for free.

In addition, there were two birding festivals and eight guided hikes at state parks and on public lands.

Foliage season was celebrated at the new Androscoggin Riverlands State Park with a paddle tour.

While new or updated management plans at some state lands — including Riverlands and Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal — have caused debates over what users should have access, there’s no denying Mainers love their green space.

That these debates occur at all is proof.

And in the big picture, they appear to be growing even fonder of their state parks, with sales of state park passes increasing from 8,716 in 2001 to about 11,443 last year.

Certainly the dry summer and warm days helped inspire park-goers. But the fact they embraced their state parks offers something to consider: Will all this parkland love continue?

After leading the Department of Conservation during one of its best years in a decade, Townsend thinks so.

“It is an affordable, nearby opportunity for family-friendly recreation, and that is increasingly important in this tough economy and these stressful times,” Townsend said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]