What’s Going On in Your Area?: Federal Land Recreation and Covid-19 Impacts

Crowded sites like this during the coronavirus pandemic have National Forest managers concerned. (U.S. Forest Service)

Forest Service retirees in Region 2 recently received a note from Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien that said:

This year has certainly brought on more challenges to our public lands as we are seeing unprecedented numbers of forest visitors across the forests and grasslands. While this means more members of the public are learning about and enjoying our public lands, it also means that every program area across the Region is feeling the increased pressures in our jobs.

Our Regional Leadership Team is discussing these issues at length and actively seeking additional support for employees, both for personal well-being and physical, psychological, and social safety, as well as for the protection and conservation of our natural and cultural resources that we hold so dear. Though we may not immediately have big and swift options for change, we can certainly work together and incrementally continue to raise awareness of conditions across our lands and the effects it is having on our employees, our users, and our resources.

So this is an opportunity to collect info from various parts of the country. Have you seen any news stories, or have you observed yourself/spoken with people involved?

1. Has your area seen increases in people and camping on National Forests/BLM due to Covid-19?

2. Earlier in the year, outfitters I spoke with said that out of state bookings were down (planned vacations from out of state/country, as opposed to day or weekend trips). They were encouraging Front Range types to come and fill in some of the gaps. How does this look in your part of the country in terms of locals/nearby metros (if any)/out of state/country visits?

3. In the Colorado Springs area, we’ve also had what seems to be cases of local communities closing off places where people traditionally accessed National Forests due to some combination of avoiding Covid-19/too many people/too many people not behaving well. Have you seen any of this?

4. Based on observing previous years, there may be more people recreating on the National Forests around here during the week.. possibly due to more work from home and more flexible work schedules, and perhaps the need to get the kids outdoors and socially distanced. What have you experienced or read about?

5. What about recreation businesses? Here’s an example of a story on increases in RV sales. Here’s an example of a story on outdoor recreation businesses being hard hit by Covid. Maybe people are going to more individual and less guided recreation? Or perhaps the far-away people are staying away? Or perhaps in the Rockies, there are more people from neighboring States with no mountains and lotsa heat? What about other regions?

15 thoughts on “What’s Going On in Your Area?: Federal Land Recreation and Covid-19 Impacts”

  1. Up here in NW WY, federal and state campgrounds are full with in state and out of state visitors. The Governor initially restricted use of state campgrounds to locals when the campgrounds first opened in April. Many locals from Cody travel east to the Big Horns FS campgrounds to avoid the grizzly bears/wolves found in area FS campgrounds, but on weekends it can be next to impossible to find spots in the Big Horns – at least for RV campers. This links to a MT article on what MT FWP is doing to cope with crowding in MT campgrounds.

    • Thanks. Last time I was in the Bighorns it seemed like there were folks that left their trailers there for the two week limit ..and might or might not show up to camp on any given day. The rec people were dutifully tagging them at two weeks.. but it was still hard to find a place. But that was several years ago during hunting season.

  2. this is anecdotal, but I think the data bears this out- in the Sierra we are getting huge numbers of people, probably absorbing a lot of folks that don’t want to go to pppular tourist cities like LA and San Francisco, as well as people who might travel to other states or countries during the summer. I think we are also impacted by closure or limits on state parks, such as the state parks and beaches, reducing the options to escape the heat and play in the water. Some Sierran forests with small recreation staffs due to private management of campgrounds are slammed trying to absorb additional users, forcing them to close dispersed free campgrounds, forcing them to restrict fire permits, and resulting in a lot of escaped campfires. Like everything in the US, the direction and management of Covid 19 has been confusing and inconsistent.

    What I noticed during a few days camping and crowded areas on the Stanislaus NF was that despite the masses of people, including at remote swimming holes, the diversity was impressive and refreshing. I’m hoping the crowds will subside as other travel options return (next season?), but that the diversity will continue as people get comfortable in and enjoy their National Forests. New users may be shocked at the lack of facilities or be unfamiliar with Leave no Trace and other ethical/ management issues, so this may be a good time for the Forest Service to provide better outreach and education about what they do and how to visit National Forests.

  3. On the trail that I use regularly in Missoula, the number of people went up right away and has stayed up. The Forest Service has a sign on the parking lot at the trailhead about going somewhere else if the lot is full (but doesn’t provide information about where else to go).

  4. Here’s a FB post from a longtime friend who has been deeply involved in conservation issues for the past 30+ years. It’s a dispatch from the Sawtooth Wilderness on the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho and this is what they saw/experienced this past weekend:

    “Sawtooth wilderness, with a small w, maybe even turned upside down. One of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done but it’s loved to death. At least 100 people camped at Alice Lake. The folks camped next to us ignored the No Drone sign and flew one until I protested. The human waste is a huge problem. If this was a Rainbow Gathering the feds would be all over it. No chance of ever seeing wildlife here. This would never be secure habitat for a grizzly bear. The idea of communing with nature and rejuvenating the soul in wilderness is a far off notion. A permitting process is desperately needed.”

    • Thanks, Matthew! I wonder whether the feds have the capacity to be “all over it” when it seems to be happening everywhere. It seems to me that there are two problems.. too many people and People Behaving Badly (waste)(drones). Permitting takes care of too many people but not People Behaving Badly.

      We seem to be stuck in an intractable place.. not enough law enforcement folks to keep People from Behaving Badly, and volunteers can educate, but can also be unsafe if Badly Behaving People have the wrong mental attitude. I’d be interested in anyone who has experienced this and found solutions.

  5. Yellowstone Park and adjacent national forests:

    Despite the hassles of traveling with hand sanitizer, masks and staying socially distant during the novel coronavirus outbreak, visitation to the park was up by about 2% in July compared to July 2019. “Business has definitely been steady,” said Wendy Swenson, marketing director for the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve noticed that increase as well.”

    Swenson said travelers seem to have less patience … “People are looking to escape rather than to be somewhere,” Mikos said.“

    The public lands around us are heavily pressured,” Alder said. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of trash and toilet paper flowers at pullouts.”

    “Whether that’s an uptick in tourism or local people spending time on public land, I don’t know,” said Wendy Urie of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Part of the increase could be from outdoor-oriented people moving to the community from out of state.


  6. From the Ridgeway, CO area:

    Unhappy trails
    Unprecedented backcountry recreation is damaging the environment and taxing limited resources. Officials hope increased education and enforcement will stem the impacts.

  7. San Juan Mountains take beating this summer from off-roading

    With trips to the backcountry increasing this year, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic making the outdoors a popular destination, more people are illegally driving off-road, damaging fragile alpine tundra.

    “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the amount of illegal off-road travel by motorized vehicles,” said Paul Blackman, a recreation manager for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pagosa Ranger District. “And it’s definitely an increasing concern.”

    The rules for backcountry travel, Blackman said, are simple: Stay on designated roads.

    People disregarding the road closures is an issue land management agencies encounter every year, Blackman said. But this summer, it seems more people are driving into off-limits areas, either unaware of the rules or blatantly breaking them.

    “We are definitely encountering people that are less inclined to follow the rules than they have in the past,” he said.

    San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad has seen much of the same around the high country of the San Juan Mountains that surround Silverton, along with incredible amounts of trash, human waste and people camping in off-limit areas.

    “It’s just like we have a different mentality going on these days where people think they’re too special for the rules to apply to them,” Conrad said. “This year has just been insane.”

  8. I would of thought someone would of realized people were going to be looking to our public lands to escape the confines of the covid virus. Instead of laying personnel off and closing campsites and trail access they should of been anticipating increased demand with more employees and increased fees. Of course this is just hindsight.
    Bureaucracies seems to behave in this fashion. I read today that the Post Office will be increasing prices and slowing down delivery after the election. If a private business came up with a business plan like that they wouldn’t be in business long.
    (Off topic. I see the Willamette National has a 10 acre wildfire in the Opal creek wilderness that they are going to let burn till the rains put it out. I hope we don’t lose more old growth forest, and spend millions of dollars because of this decision.)

    • Howdy Bob: I agree with the first part of your comment. But disagree that “Of course this is just hindsight.” Nope, for the past 5 months or so, everyone saw this happening. There have literally been hundreds of reports from around the country. Yet, what has the Trump administration done to help the USFS confront all these recreation issues made worst by COVID? What has Congress done?

      Also, you bring up the U.S. Post Office. I love the USPS! My great-grandfather returned from fighting in the trenches in World War I and was the USPS rural letter carrier (via horse and buggy, early on) for Elkhart Lake, WI. He was also commander of the VFW post in Plymouth and chef de gare of Voiture 1080, 40 et 8 of Sheboygan County.

      What has the Trump administration done to support the USPS vs what have they done to undermine it? Sharon has referred to everything bad that’s happening under Trump right now as just part of the “silly season” but I’d think that older, rural people around the country (including veterans) who need the USPS and timely delivery of medicine and social security checks don’t find Trump’s actions very “silly” or inconsequential.

      Finally, you said “I see the Willamette National has a 10 acre wildfire in the Opal creek wilderness that they are going to let burn till the rains put it out.” However, according to an article by Zach Urness of the Salem Statesman Journal, helicopters have been dropping water on the 10-acre fire since Sunday.

      According to Inciweb: Detroit, OR Aug.19, 2020 – Aircraft continued to drop water on the Beachie Creek Fire yesterday as firefighters scouted the steep ridges to locate safe access on the ground. The fire exhibited limited growth in the last 24 hours and is still estimated to be 10 acres with 0% containment.

      • The USPS has always worked well for me. Oregon has been voting by mail for years now.
        I read on inciweb the date of containment for the Beachie Creek Fire was October 31.
        This lead me to conclude that it would burn till it rained.


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