“Locals only” coronavirus closures of Colorado federal land

What does your Forest’s distance traveled look like?

If you look at the Forest Service NVUM numbers (granted that there are issues with these numbers, but perhaps they are the best available if we want to understand Forest Service recreation) we see that we can tell how far away visitors come from to visit National Forests. I did this extract for the Bitterroot National Forest in Region 1 (it’s easy to do for your own forest by following the screens and generating your own report).

I think the Coronavirus has encouraged (or forced) us to think about these distinctions, at least in Colorado. Here’s a piece by Jason Blevins in the Colorado Sun:

More resorts are banning uphill traffic as skiers flock. And as a second snowy weekend approaches with the entire state now under stay-at-home orders, more health departments and sheriffs are following that lead with both orders and requests to limit outdoor activity by visitors from afar.

San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad on Saturday took the closures an extra step. He limited access to 220,000 acres of federal land to the roughly 700 residents of the one-town county. He joins the Southeast Utah Health Department as the only two jurisdictions to close public lands to everyone except locals.

But there’s a snag in those protective orders prodded by health officials and intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 in — and to — rural areas where local hospitals could easily be overwhelmed: Federal land policy prohibits limiting access to a select few.

In times of an emergency or public safety issue, like a wildfire, high avalanche danger or an accident, local authorities can and do temporarily suspend all access to public lands.
“I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that type of closure. But this seems to be an effort that quite explicitly discriminates against people who are not from the local area,” said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.

The March 16 order by the Southeast Utah Health Department closed restaurants, coffee shops and bars with prohibition of sit-down service in the tourist-reliant Carbon, Emery and Grand counties. It also closed theaters, venues and overnight lodging, noting that the three counties “are surrounded by virus activity.” In the section closing overnight and short-term lodging facilities, the order said only “primary residents” and “essential visitors” who were working in the counties “may utilize public lands for primitive camping purposes.”

If a county has shut down overnight lodging, and the only other lodging is on public land for primitive camping, does the county does not have the right to restrict that? Is that discrimination against outsiders or a necessary public health initiative? Do local public health concerns (life and death) ever trump the property rights of citizens from elsewhere to use their federal lands? It’s interesting that the ski areas, who presumably hold a federal permit, were told to shut down by the Governor. The many faces of federalism, at least as applied to federal lands, (and the federal government being a good neighbor) can be confusing.

5 thoughts on ““Locals only” coronavirus closures of Colorado federal land”

  1. It’s a really interesting question whether states and counties have the power to close federal lands to the public. I don’t honestly know the answer to that.

    It also doesn’t help when the state/local orders are less than clear about what is acceptable. There’s a big debate going on in offroading Facebook groups right now about whether Colorado’s statewide stay-at-home order allows people to drive to the mountains from the front range to go Jeeping. Denver’s order is apparently stricter and they say people are not allowed to drive to other communities for outdoor recreation, but the statewide order is vague on that point. It’s going to be a bigger and bigger question as the snow starts melting and lower altitude 4×4 trails start opening up. April is usually the very beginning of our wheeling season since it’s the first month when it starts becoming possible to find dry trails where you’re not doing deep snow-wheeling.

    The reality of public lands in Colorado is different than Montana, and I bet our NVUM survey results would show that many national forests in Colorado have a much higher average distance traveled to get there, as so many visitors come from the front range cities. If driving to other non-local communities for outdoor recreation is not acceptable under these various orders, outdoor recreation here will suffer in ways it won’t necessarily in other states where more public lands are closer to the population base.

  2. Not something I know a lot about, but I think it’s a principle of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution that prevents states from discriminating against residents of other states (though higher prices for out-of-state hunting/fishing licenses are ok). (I’m not sure how that would apply within a state.) There can sometimes be exceptions that allow restriction of freedoms (like yelling “fire” in a theater is not free speech), and this is a rare case where where you are from could affect public health and safety so might justify that kind of exception. The bigger problem might be that states have no authority over public access to federal lands except what might be granted to them by the federal government (e.g. law enforcement agreements). But this could be a case where the Forest Service might agree if asked.

  3. Seems wise to address crowding where it may be a problem, but to close all recreation sites (as done on the Mt Hood, Deschutes, and Ochoco NF, among others) seems irresponsible given the metal health benefits of exposure to nature.


    Also odd that logging and timber sales continue unabated given that workers often crowd together on the ride to work sites, and logging is dangerous and could burden the healthcare system.

    • That might change as mills continue to slow production. I believe it was declared an essential industry. (Toilet paper, paper masks?)
      Not a good idea to close the restrooms and keep access open.
      We are differently in new territory now.


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