For many of us right now, the call and desire to get back to nature has never felt stronger. Amidst confusion and fear unprecedented in our lifetimes we crave those simple pleasures: birds chirping, fresh spring air, the quiet contemplation of a walk in the woods to return even a brief moments peace to our hearts. Historically, Americans have almost instinctively turned to our national parks and monuments to seek these healing comforts. It is with that in mind that we who regularly advocate with passion on behalf of these places and such pursuits make this humbling and urgent request: Please Stay Away.
Now is not the time to push forward with those travel plans to a national park. A perfect storm of milder weather, misguided suspension of entrance fees, and masses already fidgeting with cabin fever and a sudden surplus of time on their hands has brought crowds pouring into popular destinations. Reports earlier this week told of tourists overflowing a visitor center at Big Bend National Park, while Zion National Park saw people crammed into shuttle buses near capacity. This is all in light of, and dismissive of, nation wide pleas for social distancing. Bears Ears National Monument is experiencing an influx of visitation which, when combined with already strained staff resources, leaves both visitors and sensitive archeological sites vulnerable. Nearby Arches National Park has counted upward of 1,900 cars passing its entrance gate daily. This has prompted officials with Moab Regional Hospital to send a letter appealing for Utah Governor Gary Herbert to, “Please. Do. More. Now.” The letter, as reported by NPR Utah, begs for the closure of non-essential businesses as a deterrent to booming tourism.
“Although the desert around Moab is vast, the town itself is small… cruise ship small…” the letter stresses, “with similar isolation and limitations in resources.”
Moab is expected to more than double its population based on hotel bookings for this weekend. One unwitting infected guest could mean devastation for this remote community with just seventeen hospital beds, only five of which are suitable for treating patients suffering the more severe effects of COVID-19.
Such implications are the reality for many sites across our National Park System and park staff and local communities are desperately scrambling to avert public health nightmares. Several park superintendents have requested permission from the Department of the Interior to institute closures for the sake of protecting staff and visitors. The initial response has been inadequate and frustratingly bureaucratic. Superintendents were not allowed operational control over their facilities, and instead received insistence from Washington that dictated all closures and cancellations be made through proper channels. For a closure to be requested it must be justified with data and health analysis, include consideration given to alternative action, and then sent up the chain of command. It remained unclear how long it might take to gather this information, or when a response might be returned. Meanwhile, amidst these local concerns, ongoing staff reductions, and now waived entrance fees, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sent out a message encouraging park visitation.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Bernhardt boasted, much to the dismay of those with boots on the ground.
This is not acceptable. It is exceedingly crucial at this time regardless of official decision on closures that we, the American people, behave in a socially responsible manner. Any one of us would love to be in a national park right now, but we cannot allow failures in leadership to be an excuse for selfish choices with potentially deadly consequence. Any one of us with an iota of awareness should by now understand that it’s not just about us. The risks aren’t only to our own health. Our actions may not severely compromise our personal well being, but they could mean a death sentence for somebody else.
Like Moab, and in many cases even smaller and less adequately able to face this disease, communities adjacent to our parks are often extremely rural and vulnerable. By traveling to one of these locations you could be the one to unknowingly carry or transmit the virus and have it infect somebody’s father. Somebody’s sister. Somebody’s immunocompromised child. You could be responsible for facilitating its spread in a community that is home to Native elders who possess endangered cultural knowledge. You could pass it to a dedicated volunteer working the park information desk, or that friendly ranger just trying to do their job. Contracting this disease could be especially lethal to these populations with limited access to medical care, and devastatingly infectious throughout the small close-knit communities that they call home. As magical as any visit to a national park can be, it can wait. You don’t want something like this weighing on your soul.
As of Friday night reports were coming in of some announced park closures, including Yosemite, much of Everglades, and all of Rocky Mountain National Park. The list will certainly grow as superintendents collaborate with local officials, learn to navigate the process, and higher level decision makers become more receptive to and understanding of this need. Closures will bring new challenges. We’ve seen past instances of vandalism and poor behavior during government shutdowns. Please also respect these safeguards and allow the rangers on duty to focus on protecting our treasured resources.
None of this is easy, and these aren’t requests I ever in my wildest dreams thought I’d write. Honestly, it’s okay to be disappointed. It’s hard to cancel plans. I know, I just cancelled a long anticipated park trip myself. But it’s the right thing to do. We really haven’t had to buckle down as a society for a while, but we’re sure going to have to do it now. This is deadly serious. The selfless step to postpone travel and instead find an uncrowded local spot to enjoy the outdoors may be a small sacrifice, but it’s one that we can live with.
National parks have long provided us the opportunity to disconnect, and they will again; but in battling this pandemic we have to count on each other not to disconnect from the harsh realities that we are facing now.