When Given a Choice of Where to Go, We Voted with our Feet and Went Outside

Gratitude for PA’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

It’s been a challenging year since last spring at this time, when life as many of us knew it was suddenly disrupted due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Pennsylvania state law mandated orders to shelter in place, self-quarantine, and practice social distancing.  Local, national, and international travel was restricted.  People were told to stay at home and work from home if possible.  We were told to isolate ourselves to stay healthy and to stay alive.

In a time when the world continues to experience multiple global crises – the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a devastating economic recession, racial tensions, and rising mental health needs, one interesting thing this period has revealed to millions of Pennsylvanians is how important and valuable it is to spend time outside.  When given a choice of where to go, the people voted with their feet and went to Pennsylvania state and local parks and forest lands.  Some state parks had a 70–90 percent increase in visitorship in 2020.  There was never a time to be more grateful for Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR)!

Mike Walsh, Deputy Secretary for Admin PA DCNR

Pennsylvania has had a rich history over the past century investing in setting aside land for parks and forestry.  A goal was set in the 1950s-60s to set aside land for a park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania resident; and per Mike Walsh, Deputy Secretary for Administration at DCNR (and Green Building Alliance Board Member), this goal is “just about accomplished.”

DCNR is charged with maintaining and protecting 121 state parks, managing over 2 million acres of state forest land, providing information on the state’s ecological and geological resources, and establishing community conservation partnerships with grants and technical assistance to benefit rivers, trails, greenways, local parks and recreation, regional heritage parks, open space, and natural areas.  Its mission is to conserve and sustain Pennsylvania’s natural resources for present and future generations’ use and enjoyment.


Since the late 1970s, DCNR has included a commitment to sustainability in its great legacy to conserve the best of what Pennsylvania has to offer.  Through its green and sustainable initiative, DCNR exemplifies best practices through its buildings, vehicle fleet, purchases, land management, and business operations.

In addition to the beautiful land and water and trees and wildlife DCNR preserves and protects that contribute so greatly to fostering Pennsylvanians’ health and well-being, DCNR also manages more than 4,700 buildings within its park and forest systems.  Sixteen of these buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified (a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices).  Thirteen solar panel installations have been installed across Pennsylvania state parks and forests that generate approximately 500KW of energy.   Seventeen additional solar projects are in various stages of concept, design, and construction that will take DCNR to over 50 percent energy from solar by 2023. One park (Fort Washington near Philadelphia, PA) is completely net zero.  Four facilities are completely net zero, including a new solar installation on a sewage treatment plant at Moraine State Park that not only serves the park, but a nearby borough.

The first DCNR facility solar panels were installed on the roof of the Visitor’s Center at Mt. Pisgah State Park in 1979.  By the end of 2023, DCNR will have 4MW of solar installed.  Through green and sustainable initiatives, DCNR has reduced 250 tons of CO2 per year.

DCNR is a Partner of both the Pittsburgh 2030 District with Point State Park and the Erie 2030 District with Presque Isle State Park and has set a goal of 50 percent energy from renewable sources by the end of 2022.

Some recent examples of DCNR energy efficiency projects in Green Building Alliance’s region include:


  • lighting replacement in Point State Park Portal Bridge for visitor safety and energy savings

    Point State Park, Pittsburgh, PA

  • lighting replacement at the Point State Park fountain for visitor enjoyment and energy savings
  • installation of on-demand water heaters in all modern cabins in Western Pennsylvania for visitor comfort as well as energy and water savings


DCNR is also co-chair of GreenGov Council, along with Secretaries of the Departments of General Services and Environmental Protection, where they encourage the incorporation of environmentally sustainable practices into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s policy, planning, operations, procurement, and regulatory functions.  Governor Tom Wolf established a goal for Pennsylvania to strive to achieve a 26 percent reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (from 2005 levels).


Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA

 In 2018, DCNR began its first Guarantee Energy Savings Act (GESA) project with the help of the Pennsylvania Department of General Services.  GESA is a Pennsylvania energy savings and emission reduction program that enables mass upgrades of lighting, heating and cooling, and water usage to lower energy usage and spending.

Phase 1 of the GESA initiative encompassed energy efficiency updates at 22 state parks and four state forest districts in Western Pennsylvania.   It involved updating more than 11,551 lighting fixtures to high efficiency LEDs, 172 updates of building weatherization and insulation, 11 new hot water heaters, and boiler and furnace replacements at five locations.  The $5.5 million project will save $7.5 million in total guaranteed utility cost savings over 20 years.   Per Mike Walsh, “Using the savings created from these reduced energy costs, we can pay for other upgrades and improvements.”  Phase 2 has now begun in Central Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests.

DCNR Secretary Dunn at EV Charging Station, Price Gallitzin State Park



And let’s not forget about electric vehicles.  By the end of 2022, 43 Pennsylvania state parks will have electric vehicle charging stations allowing travelers to get to remote areas and not worry about getting home.  Additionally, 25 percent of DCNR’s fleet will be electric vehicles by 2025.



A huge win for DCNR, per Walsh, is the recent institution of EnergyCAP, a new energy management software program.  When Walsh was asked to co-chair DCNR’s sustainability initiative five years ago, there was no way to answer how much money was being spent at each park or how much energy

any given building was utilizing. There wasn’t one holistic system.  Now, in just the past two months with the roll out of EnergyCAP, DCNR can make data-driven decisions with 175 trained staff through access to dashboards and portals displaying energy management, utility bill accounting, and building operations management.



DCNR TREC Solar Array 2 Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle State Park Mike Walsh Left Sec Cindy Dunn Right

When asked how DCNR measures success, “Three ways,” Walsh explained.

  1. Are we demonstrating the values of conservation and stewardship to the public? Being a steward means not only maintaining our beautiful resources but improving them as well.  Are we taking proactive steps to plan for the future?
  2. Are we decreasing our carbon footprint and bettering the environment?
  3. Are we saving money for taxpayers?”


And if given a magic wand and three wishes, Walsh thoughtfully responded:

  1. “I wish that everyone would understand we are in this together. The whole conversation about environment and conservation should not be clouded by political ideology.
  2. I wish there were more affordable and accessible renewable and alternative energy products in the marketplace that all people could easily consider purchasing.
  3. I wish for a society, and especially for those of us in public life creating public policy, that makes decisions through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Why?  Because it is the beginning of understanding the importance of environmental justice.”

Ohiopyle State Park Visitor Center LEED Gold

Talking with Mike Walsh about all the great things DCNR is doing in our state and region was such an honor.  On the wall of his home office, one can’t help but notice who his favorite U.S. President is.  When asked why Theodore Roosevelt, Walsh explains, “When it comes to conservation, no President set aside more land for parks and forest than him.  It equated to about 60,000 acres for every day he was in office.  And he served almost eight years!”

Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech in France on April 23, 1910 that daily inspires and motivates Walsh in doing the good and hard work he does:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Buchanan State Forest Office with roof mounted solar

Per Walsh, “The climate crisis can feel overwhelming and catastrophic when we read the statistics.  It can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless.  We need to remember that each of us has an important role to play to help change the future in a positive way.  It can be as simple as planting trees and making better decisions in what we buy and build.  Change occurs when we support policies that can bring about this change.”

Thank you, Mike Walsh and PA DCNR, for the important work you do.  Thank you for being a Green Building Alliance Board Member.  Thank you for being a part of Pennsylvania’s DCNR sustainability commitment efforts.  Thank you for being part of a mission to conserve and sustain Pennsylvania’s natural resources for present and future generations’ use and enjoyment.  Thank you for giving us beautiful and natural spaces during these unprecedented times when we needed safe and healthy places to go!


DCNR LEED-Certified Buildings

Currently, DCNR has 16 LEED-certified buildings:

  • Sproul State Forest Resource Management Center — DCNR’s first LEED-rated facility
  • Clear Creek State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED certified
  • Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle State Park — LEED Silver certified
  • Rothrock State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED certified
  • Tiadaghton State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED Gold certified
  • Loyalsock State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED Silver certified
  • The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park — LEED Gold certified
  • Elk Country Visitor Center — LEED Gold certified
  • The Wildlife Center at Sinnemahoning State Park — LEED Silver certified
  • Penn Nursery Office at Mira Lloyd Dock Resource Conservation Center — LEED Silver certified
  • Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center — LEED Silver certified
  • Weiser State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED Gold certified
  • Ohiopyle State Park Office — Laurel Highlands Falls Area Visitor Center — LEED Gold certified
  • Kinzua Bridge State Park Visitor Center and Park Office — LEED Silver certified
  • Frances Slocum State Park Patrick J. Solano Environmental Education Center — LEED Silver certified
  • Buchanan State Forest Resource Management Center — LEED Silver certified

DCNR Solar Installations

  • Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA
  • French Creek State Park, Douglassville, PA
  • Prince Gallitzin State Park, Patton, PA
  • Gifford Pinchot State Park, Lewisberry, PA
  • Lackawanna State Park, North Abington Twp, PA
  • Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, Nazareth, PA
  • Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA
  • Mt. Pisgah State Park, Troy, PA
  • Ft. Washington State Park, Ft. Washington, PA
  • Moraine State Park, Butler, PA
  • Buchanan State Park, Clearville, PA
  • Laurel Hill Scenic View, Somerset, PA

DCNR Net Zero Facilities

  • Mt. Pisgah State Park Office Building
  • Ft. Washington State Park – entire park net zero
  • Moraine State Park – net zero waste water treatment plant
  • Buchanan State Forest District – net zero resource management center
  • Laurel Hill Scenic View – net zero scenic view property lodge and cabins


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