From nowhere, a Department of Environmental Protection law enforcement officer in his neat forest green uniform appears. He's writing something. It's a $60 ticket. The park cop explains that since Jan. 1, alcoholic drinks have been banned from all 93 state parks, campgrounds and forests.
Sorry. You gather your trash (no sense risking a littering fine) and head home, vowing to stay inside for the rest of the summer. Relax, it's not all that bad.
True, alcohol is forbidden at all state parks and campgrounds, but park officers so far are taking a soft line on enforcing the prohibition. Being caught with an open can of brew is more likely to earn you a verbal warning than a summons - at least for a short time. "We are concentrating more on educating the public to the new law right now," said one park officer.
Soda was the beverage of choice when the Garfein family stopped at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport one recent mid-week afternoon. The Garfeins - Leonard and Ann, and their 2-year-old son, Josh - kept their coats buttoned against the breeze as they picnicked on fast-food burgers and fries at a table near the parking lot. "I'm surprised to hear that," Leonard Garfein said when informed of the alcohol ban. "I think it's nice when people can have a beer or two, something on a hot summer day."
The DEP, which operates the state parks system, instituted the system-wide alcohol ban (a few smaller state parks have banned alcohol for years) after problems controlling rowdy and obnoxious crowds at Sherwood Island and Squantz Pond in New Fairfield grew worse last summer.
"We decided that a complete ban was needed after last Fourth of July," said Pamela Adams, [[member of AA and MADD]] director of state parks for the DEP. "We had some very unruly crowds at both Sherwood Island and Squantz Pond. Even though there were no arrests, it was difficult for our people." The abuse of alcohol at parks becomes especially acute on holidays, she said, when crowds reach overflow levels and kegs and cases sprout like summer flowers.
Adams noted that 25 percent of arrests made by park police last year were alcohol-related. "That was an increase of 7 percent over the previous year," she said. DEP officials declined to provide exact numbers.
As May 30, the unofficial start of the summer park season, draws near, the numbers of park visitors are already increasing. Although state parks begin charging admission on Memorial Day, some start collecting fees a few weeks earlier. The big weekend crowds begin to arrive in June.
DEP Commissioner Arthur J. Rocque Jr. said the alcohol ban is "part of an overall effort to improve services at all state recreation areas." So far the ban has taken effect smoothly. "I have not received very many complaints," Rocque said.
He said a few people think it is terrible, but most think it is positive. What lies !! Nobody has been surveyed nor can they submit an opinion.Try yourself !!!!
He said the intent was not "pick on a few people" but to ensure that most have a pleasant recreation experience. "We thought we'd try it a year," Rocque said. He noted that an alcohol ban has been in place at 13 state parks for a decade.
Although DEP law enforcement officials expect some grumbling over the total booze ban, in parks where the ban has been in effect, they say it has worked well.
"We had [an alcohol ban] at Bigelow Hollow [in Union] for probably 10 years and it worked very well," said Capt. John Smutnick, superintendent of the state park law enforcement program. "Before it was a zoo up there on weekends. Now we rarely have a reportable incident." [the place is empty !!]
Some state park employees said out-of-staters, mostly New Yorkers, comprise more than half of the visitors to Sherwood Island on a typical three-day weekend. Last summer Sherwood Island had a total of 430,260 visitors. Weekend admission to Connecticut's state parks is $8 per car for state residents and $12 for out-of-staters.
The drinking problem was exacerbated after New York and Massachusetts enacted liquor bans at their recreation areas, said David Leff, DEP deputy commissioner. Rhode Island has banned all alcohol in state parks for several years.[not enforced:webmaster]
"We became a magnet for those who wanted to party," Leff said.[from webmaster:bs!!] "Alcohol can be a serious detriment."
Squantz Pond State Park, located on Lake Candlewood in New Fairfield just a few miles from the New York border, also gets a high percentage of out-of-state visitors. Last year, that park accommodated 179,900 visitors.
Security officials could not give the number of out-of-state visitors arrested last year for alcohol-related incidents at state parks. In fact, there is no way to determine the total number of out-of-staters who use Connecticut's state parks over a summer, they said. Bob Reynolds, who tracks park attendance for the DEP, said that even though in-state and out-of-state tickets are different colors, no breakdown is attempted.
As anyone who has visited Sherwood Island or Squantz Pond on a weekend can attest, out-of-state visitors are many. Still, DEP officials were reluctant to blame outsiders for alcohol problems at the parks. "We don't want to give the impression that out-of-staters are totally to blame for the problems," Adams said.
Cynthia Martin of Danbury was visiting the Sherwood Island sea wall with her daughter, Clara, on a recent weekday. She thought the alcohol ban was "worth a try," although she felt drinking might not be as big a problem as it is being made out to be. "Younger kids cause the biggest problems," she said. "I've seen teen-agers bringing cases of beer into the picnic areas. Prohibiting alcohol would keep them out of trouble." But Garfein was not convinced that a total alcohol ban at the parks was a good idea.
"It's always just a few visitors who go too far," he said. "It's a shame to ruin it for everyone. Maybe they should just ban bringing alcohol into the park and sell beer for $5 a can at the refreshment stands. At that price very few people will drink to excess."
Charles Walsh, who covers regional issues, can be reached at 203-330-6217.