Encouraged by the federal government, lots of people are trying to get outside. But it’s a risky decision for rural communities.

cars lined up at entrance

When the San Francisco Bay area, where I live, started seeing its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was to pack up my camper van and head for the hills. Knowing tough times were ahead, I just wanted to be in nature.

There’s a scientific reason behind that desire — studies have shown that time in green spaces is good for our health and can even reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. It’s not just a boon for our physical health, either: Being in nature can improve our mental and emotional wellbeing, too.

Taking deep breaths in the shadow of an ancient redwood tree feels good on any day, but during a global pandemic, when we’re battling a rotation of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, it seems almost essential.

Since we’ve been ordered to “shelter in place” where I live, my van’s still parked in front of my house. But I’m far from alone in my desire to get outside and hit the trails. And that’s becoming a big problem for rural communities.

Earlier this month, as health officials were warning that our best bet for slowing the spread of the virus was to stay home, the federal government was waiving entrance fees and encouraging people to visit national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal public lands.

A few places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the Bay Area and the Statue of Liberty National Monument closed. But most didn’t, and visitors flooded in.

Even as outrage grew over coronavirus-mocking spring break revelers packing beaches in Florida, folks of all ages were visiting national parks across the country. A March 17 story in The Guardian described shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at popular parks like Big Bend and Zion, which later suspended its shuttle bus service.

In theory, getting out into nature and exploring our expansive public lands may seem like a good idea right now. But finding the right balance between enjoying the outside and keeping park employees and local residents safe during this health crisis has proved tough.

Most people don’t head for remote wilderness; instead they congregate in the popular and accessible locations. They also need services like restrooms, garbage cans, restaurants and shuttles, which — if they’re carrying the virus — can put not just other visitors but park staff at risk.

“We should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks,” Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect National Parks, said in a statement. “It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe.”

National parks are already dealing with budget shortfalls in the billions — reduced staff with bigger crowds right now further threatens park resources.

We’ve seen that before. During the government shutdown last year, leaving parks open but largely unattended by rangers resulted in heaps of garbage, destroyed trails and damaged plants.

One National Park Service employee, in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, took a very public stand against this last week. In his resignation letter, which he distributed to the media, he said park employees who still had to come to work in the small Alaskan town of Skagway were being put at risk.

“We are geographically isolated. We have one respirator in town and no doctors,” wrote Dustin Stone, who also serves as a local assemblymember. “The municipality has declared a state of emergency and requested that people close non-essential offices, yet my federal employer actively chooses to disregard those guidelines, as well as CDC and White House recommendations.”

This isn’t just a problem in remote Alaska. Rural areas across the country already face limited medical resources exacerbated by years of hospital closures that put residents at an increased risk, especially when visitors cause a quick uptick in population.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah are still open, but the surrounding communities, like Moab, have tried to deter visitors by closing campgrounds and hotels to out-of-towners. Local hospital officials even sent a letter to the governor asking for nonessential businesses to be ordered closed, as well as parks, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“Although the desert around Moab is vast, our town is small,” the letter said. “We are already concerned about how we will meet the needs of our community in an epidemic. As a 17-bed critical access hospital, we have no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients.”

It’s a similar story in Colorado. Rocky Mountain National Park closed on Friday after urgings from the mayor and health department in the adjacent town of Estes Park, which had its first confirmed COVID-19 case. In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Mayor Todd Jirsa said that a flood of visitors posed a “grave public health concern” for the small communities around the park, which have limited resources and a large population of higher-risk retirees.

In Lake Tahoe the agency responsible for luring tourists and drumming up business reversed course. “This is something I thought I’d never have to say throughout my tourism career, but please stay home at this time,” Carol Chaplin, the president of Lake Tahoe Visitor Authority, said in a statement. “Once it is deemed safe by the health experts, we can welcome you with open arms and will be joining you.”

Coastal areas of Oregon and California saw bumper-to-bumper traffic this weekend as people headed to beaches and parks. Keeping a safe distance became untenable. As a result, Marin and Sonoma counties just north San Francisco closed all parks. Oregon’s governor ordered residents to stay home. And Great Smoky Mountain National Park abruptly closed on Tuesday.

This is no longer business-as-usual and we’re going to have to adjust. If wild places can’t be accessed without endangering those who work or visit there, common decency suggests they shouldn’t — even if the federal government doesn’t amend its messaging.

Losing access to some of our most beautiful places right now is a tough one, but the alternative is far worse.

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Tara Lohan

worked as The Revelator's deputy editor from 2018-2024. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis and is working on a book about dam removal.