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State park visitation numbers still close to pandemic-era levels

 Visitors to Cooper Lake State Park usually come from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but many visit from elsewhere around the region.
Cindy Roller
Cooper Review
Visitors to Cooper Lake State Park usually come from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but many visit from elsewhere around the region.

Bonham, Cooper Lake still welcoming plenty of guests despite inflation biting into leisure budgets.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many city dwellers visited state parks, which offered a chance to get some literal fresh air during the claustrophobic months of heightened restrictions. This year, inflation has changed some consumer habits, but many of those who visited state parks in 2020 and 2021 seem to be coming back.

Steve Killian, superintendent at Cooper Lake State Park for the past four years, separates the two factors – COVID and inflation – as having both positive and negative effects on visitation.

Killian, who has worked for Texas Parks & Wildlife for the past 19 years, said the COVID-19 pandemic brought a fairly dramatic increase in visitation at Cooper Lake SP. Why? “People were told it was best to go outdoors and away from closed indoor environments,” Killian said.

He said Cooper Lake has seen a “slight decrease” in visitation since the threat from the virus has ebbed, “but we’re still above pre-COVID levels.”

Killian said Cooper Lake State Park saw “record visitation during the COVID pandemic.” He added that other state and national parks had the same sort of spike in activity during the peak of the pandemic. “I just came back from Yellowstone National Park,” he said, “and I heard the same thing there.”

Inflationary pressure has helped Cooper Lake maintain its activity level, Killian said, “but we’re down probably 5 to 10% from our visitation levels in 2021.”

“Most of our visitors come from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex,” Killian said, adding that the park is “still above where we were pre-COVID.” He said Cooper Lake State Park had to shut down for about a week when the COVID virus was at its peak. All told, though, the park continues to enjoy brisk visitation even as the nation battles inflationary pressure along with the lingering effects of the COVID virus and its assorted variants.

Jason Schooley, superintendent at Bonham State Park for the past seven years, echoed Killian’s assessment of the COVID pandemic’s impact on visitation. Schooley said he is “not equipped” to discuss the economic pressure that inflation has had on park visitation.

It’s up at Bonham SP, Schooley said. “Overnight reservations have gone up,” he said. “They began going up pre-COVID and stayed up during the pandemic and now post-COVID,” he said. Schooley said Bonham SP is full “almost every weekend” with overnight campers.

Day use levels remain about the same as they were pre-COVID, he said.

“I talk to visitors all the time and during the COVID pandemic, they were telling me they preferred to go camping to stay out of enclosed indoor environments,” he said, adding that they saw the outdoor experience as a preventative step to remain healthy.

“Our visitation went up during COVID,” Schooley said. “It has stayed up now that there’s less of the virus,” he added, “and that’s good for us.”