The world has been turned upside down, inside out and beaten thoroughly, like a freshly washed down comforter. Emotions have been set to critical for over a month with only more confusion in sight, which doesn’t make for lovely, pleasant spring days for many. Personally, I’ve had major writer’s block since I returned from our first try at a Mountain Trail schooling show and my state implemented “Stay Safe, Stay Home” orders. An argument now rearing it’s ugly head has unstuck me to some regard, so here’s my thoughts on trying to recreate outdoors during a global pandemic.
I will state right up than I’m still grieving the loss of being able to go hiking, walking and camping with my little dog, pony and 9 year old son show. I may be heavily pregnant, but I was still planning on getting out at least every other week with friends until June if I could. I’m pretty sure my 19 year old, been everywhere gelding will pretend he’s never seen a trailer in his life when all this is said and done.
For every argument for throwing public lands back open, come what may, there’s a great deal of solid science, utter unknowns and plain humans being humans reasons not to; or at least, to try to find alternatives. The hardest part of all this for me, who likes to rely on experts and solid science, is that even the experts are flying a bit blind and there’s just so many unknowns around Covid-19, it makes “returning to normal” especially fraught…and humans, as a species, don’t always operate the best in the grey areas.
My neighbor to the north state, where a good chunk of my friends live, is cautiously reopening state public lands for day use next week, with several caveats. The biggest impact to me personally being the “don’t drive far” and “only travel with those you live with” directives. My state has prolonged opening the state parks until Memorial Day at least, which considering the supposed cross state agreement we joined seem a bit moot on the surface.
- If one state opens but another doesn’t, people will be people and will travel across borders. This will lead to the crowding and overuse the officials are trying to prevent. Large fines and other enforcement strategies won’t change this behavior, as there are only so many officials able to enforce directives available anyway. Trail heads regularly see break ins, trash dumps and vandalism during normal times due to lack of enforcement, and that will just get worse.
- State lands already feel the effect of budget cuts, chronic under funding and lack of staff. I did a stint as a park ranger and can attest to the uphill battle it normally is to keep up cleanliness; I shudder to imagine how much harder it would be with facilities closed and unable to be safely maintained by park staff even further constrained by lack of PPE and other materials. Opening access without opening facilities leads to the more careless humans making a huge mess, not recreating responsibly enough and providing disease spread (which even now is still not totally clear).
- For those crying “But those are our lands!” This is true on the surface, but we live in a system in which we’ve given over management of such places to officials in whatever form. They currently face a heartbreaking battle between open access for all, maintaining the health and safety of both staff and visitors, and halting progression of a virus we still don’t have a clear picture for. Whether we fully agree with their decisions or not, they do have the power and the right to make them, and shouldn’t be vilified for it, only supported in whatever ways we can; whether that be through public comment, staying home or recreating as responsibly as we know how these days.
- To those of pretty much all my friends, who I include in the “can recreate responsibly” guidelines and/or be reasonably self contained, I’m with you on desiring open lands where we can make our own choices and visit safely. But just enough folks just won’t or can’t follow the LNT guidelines or just manage to care enough about other people to open public lands without a solid, safe plan in place for managing such people, and that’s the bottom line officials have to reckon with. That part sucks the most for me, to know how hard my friends and I work when we camp, hike and volunteer to keep our public lands safe, clean and usable, and being unable to due to the subset of folks that just don’t care enough.
I don’t have any answers to the underlying issues above, maybe a few suggestions that I still don’t know would lead to a “safe enough” opening. Sure a permit system to avoid overcrowding is a decent idea, but leads to it’s own subset of problems, chief among them access for all and the time and budget to even set one up or expand the existing system (plus the additional cries of “It’s my land, why should I pay for it or have to arrange access to it?”).
As much as it sucks in the short term (and boy howdy does it really freaking suck when the sun shines and everything is bursting into bloom), the most responsible, ethical and kind thing to do is to stay at home until a safe enough system is worked out. I still hold hope for at least one more camping trip before I pop, even if it is just to my friend’s pasture!