Welcome to this month’s “News From the Parks,” where we round up for you the latest info about happenings at America’s Greatest treasures.
As travel restrictions, shelter-in-place orders, and closures to all but the most essential services sweep the country, the National Park Service has been caught in the middle of wanting to protect people and places, while providing recreational opportunities for Americans to get out and free their minds in nature.
On Wednesday the 18th, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to temporarily suspend the collection of all park entrance fees until further notice.
“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” he said.
Other states and municipalities have implemented similar policies waiving fees to parks partly in an effort to support social distancing.
But the measure has a second motive, to keep rangers from interacting with the cash and credit cards of visitors.
At a majority of park locations where it is possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities are closed.
But the reality of social distancing in a National Park isn’t as simple as it sounds. Narrow trails require people to pass within close proximity of each other. Scenic overlooks still attract crowds. And visiting an expansive park without access to restrooms and water creates a safety and sanitation problem.
More and more parks are realizing allowing for outdoor recreation during this time is an insurmountable challenge. While the Park Service is heavily encouraging social distancing, some individual parks are seeing a business-as-usual atmosphere among visitors.
Shenandoah National Park posted photos on its social media accounts of overcrowded parking areas at trailheads, saying “We are concerned that Saturday’s visitation patterns were in violation of CDC recommendations. If you are coming to the Park, please choose to visit areas that are not crowded to allow for adequate social distancing. This would include NOT hiking at Old Rag, Whiteoak Canyon, Dark Hollow Falls and other high-use trails. The Old Rag and Berry Hollow area became so congested on Saturday that local authorities had to close the road.”
The Coronavirus scare and park visitation is a particular problem for gateway communities outside of parks, which may operate limited healthcare facilities and emergency services.
Moab, Utah, and the surrounding three counties are a popular jumping off point for several National Park Service sites like Canyonlands and Arches. Local officials have enacted an order to close off to tourists. All overnight and short-term lodging facilities are required to be rented or leased only to primary residents of Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.
Brady Bradford, Moab health department director, said during a facebook streaming conference
“I feel like if we don’t take action now, our residents will suffer, our health care system will suffer,” he said. “If we take enough action now we will spread out the impact of the disease over many months.”
Bradford’s order includes dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land, and says that no camp can be located within 200 yards of another camp and no camp can host more than 10 visitors. “At this point we are asking people to suspend their visits,” he said, adding that new reservations for any type of lodging are restricted to residents or people in the region for work purposes.
The area hosts millions of visitors a year, but the Moab Regional Hospital has only 17 beds, no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients.
The virus also led nearby Zion National Park officials to announce suspension of shuttle service indefinitely, but that’s caused the park to be flooded with vehicles.
Many park service sites across the country have, in fact, closed or partially closed. Shortly after the State of California announced a shelter-in-place order, Yosemite announced a total closure.
White Sands National Park is closed, as is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and most of Hawai’i’s other National Park Service Sites. Much of the most visited park in the nation, Great Smoky Mountains, is closed, and The Everglades are closed for most land visitors, but access via water remains available.
In Colorado, officials pleaded to close Rocky Mountain National Park, where the mayor of gateway community Estes Park and the County’s public health director sent letters to the Department of the Interior making the request.
“On behalf of the Town of Estes Park, I am requesting the immediate closure of Rocky Mountain National Park, to assist our community, our county, and our state in addressing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic.” he wrote.
Traffic in the park had been increasing as spring breakers were coming to Colorado, and as people who would otherwise be at the now-closed ski resorts headed to the park.
The mayor wrote that groceries and emergency services must be available to residents who live in the town, and a continued influx of visitors presents a grave public health concern to Estes Park and the surrounding communities. Estes Park’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced last week. Friday, Rocky Mountain National Park announced that it would close entirely, indefinitely.
Most small park service sites are closed, especially those that are indoors, and additional closures are constantly announced. The best resource for National Park Service closures, whether it be entire parks or campgrounds and activities is National Parks Traveler’s article detailing the latest updates. It’s the featured article on their homepage at https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/.
All of us at the America’s National Parks podcast would like to encourage you to get out and enjoy the outdoors as much as possible while practicing social distancing. But now isn’t the time to travel. Enjoy outdoor spaces in your local community. Take a scenic drive, a bike ride, or a hike. But remember that most visitor centers and restroom facilities in these spaces will be closed.
On a personal note, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of our current situation.
This time in our lives will certainly be remembered in a similar fashion as the days surrounding 9/11, or the Challenger explosion, or the Kennedy assassination. This time will be a guidepost in the story of all of our lives, especially for many of our children who are experiencing their first brush with this type of difficult situation.
Tragedies spawn innovation. Hopefully, 2020 will be remembered as the year before a biotech revolution. Before our healthcare system was reformed, and before sweeping innovations in emergency preparedness.
Half of all Americans misremember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, only 19 years ago. Make sure to keep photos, notes, messages …anything to remember this time when we couldn’t shake hands, meet in person, or visit our most special places. Those memories will surely be appreciated fifty years from now.
Soon it will be time to Find Your Park again. Until then, remember that the primary purpose of our National Parks is not our enjoyment, but to protect the world for generations to come.
This will be our last “news from the parks” episode for a while. We’re going to return to only sharing stories of beauty, courage, hope, and life from our nation’s treasures next week. We hope you’ll continue to join us.
America’s National Parks is part of the RV Miles Network of Podcasts, which also includes the RV Miles and See America podcasts. To learn more visit RVMiles.com.
Connect with America’s National Parks Podcast on social media! You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group – now over 37,000 strong. Visit Facebook.com/groups/americasnationalparks to join.
Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.