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January 06. 2013 10:32PM

New plan for state's parks calls for more trails and playgrounds

A new five-year plan outlining the future of outdoor recreation activities in New Hampshire calls for the creation of more walking and running trails for older adults, playgrounds for kids, and maximizing use of state parks with year-round activities.

The state's Division of Parks and Recreation is required by law to compile a report on trends and priorities in outdoor recreation activities every five years, to keep the state in the running for federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grants. The 2013-2018 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), released on Thursday, uses state research, surveys and focus group results to predict the needs and wants of outdoor enthusiasts over the next five years, and help officials plan to meet those needs.

"The SCORP is an excellent tool for the division, other state agencies and local communities to use as a resource," said Phil Bryce, director of the state's Division of Parks and Recreation. "A tremendous amount of work went into the development of this document through outreach to state agencies, local government, and the general public."

"Community recreation is vitally important to the entire recreation landscape in New Hampshire," Department of Resources and Economic Development Director George Bald wrote in his introduction letter to the report. "Locally-based recreation opportunities that include parks with playgrounds and picnic tables, places where dogs can romp with other dogs and dog owners can share outdoor play time, pathways that allow for walking from home to stores or community centers and back again, bicycle paths and right-of-ways for both exercise and commuting, as well as safe walking routes to schools, are integral to future planning for both transportation and recreation improvements.

"A strong community-based recreation program supports a strong state park system which helps build strong healthy minds and bodies for our young people, our families, and our elders."

The report focuses on four priorities: connecting people to the outdoors, highlighting ways outdoor recreation contributes to New Hampshire's economic vitality, improving on the current public outreach and education programs, and the need to protect the state's natural resources.

"Our office is pleased once again to partner with DRED on the SCORP," Joanne Cassulo, interim director of the state's Office of Energy and Planning. "The document highlights the value of outdoor recreation to the overall health of our communities and citizens and we look forward to supporting DRED on its implementation."

One of the top priorities stressed in the report is the importance of connecting people of all ages to the outdoors. The SCORP states that six out of every 10 overweight children have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Childhood obesity is growing, and children are spending less time playing outdoors. A 2009 survey commissioned by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing play back into the lives of children, included responses from 1,677 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 12.

The survey found 59 percent of parents report that their children do not have access to a community playground, while 96 percent of parents said playing outside was vital to keeping their children physically fit.

In its 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Update, the state's Department of Health and Human Services reported that in 2009 36.5 percent of New Hampshire adults were overweight, while 26.3 percent were considered obese. These rates are similar to overweight and obesity estimates in nationwide population.

To address these issues, the report emphasizes the importance of connecting individuals to opportunities to take part in active outdoor recreation activities, including bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling sports, snow sports, wildlife viewing, trail-running, hiking, and climbing.

The report also stresses the important part outdoor recreation plays in the state's economy. The New Hampshire Recreation and Park Association surveyed 23 communities in areas of New Hampshire popular with tourists, and the results show the population served by local recreation agencies increases by 59 percent in the summer. Between June and August last summer, 273,356 people visited local parks and recreation facilities and programs, and local agencies hired approximately 635 seasonal employees in one just summer season.

"Outdoor recreation is integral to the exceptional quality of life enjoyed by New Hampshire's residents and visitors," wrote Bald. "It helps to attract new business, encourages young people to remain here after college to raise their families, and is critical to attracting tourists from all over the country and around the world which supports additional economic development in our state."

pfeely@unionleader.com

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