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Letting the public in: Recreation access during a pandemic

Portrait of Jeff Marsolais in uniform leaning against a Forest Service sign.
Jeff Marsolais, acting director, Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources.

Last weekend, with the warm springtime weather in California, my wife and I ventured out for a drive in the local national forest. We were like so many other Americans who were out and about, looking for something different to do than staying home while following the current state social distancing orders. I knew not to expect developed recreation sites to be open as the agency had closed them when the governor’s stay at home orders went into place. Though they were “supposed to be closed,” what we found was far different...

The availability of our recreation sites during this pandemic has been a significant challenge and a point of controversy. Our planning efforts early on focused on protecting employees from exposure to COVID-19 and flattening the curve. Closing recreation sites aligned well with “stay at home” orders being issued by governors across the U.S. Line officers in the field made tough choices as they considered risk assessments that showed the consequences of keeping facilities open, limiting services, or closing them.

Compounding the tough choices were the differences in situations across the nation. During the early period of our response, while the Southern Region was at nearly full recreation season operation, the forests in the Rocky Mountain Region were under snow with a peak ski season underway, and many forests in Pacific Northwest and Southwest were transitioning from winter seasons toward summer recreation. It seemed that each state and each national forest had a different set of considerations in their risk assessments.

Back to my trip...we started into the Crystal Basin, noticing a lot more vehicles than we expected, and then we passed a Forest Service boat ramp with a closed parking lot, so, instead, folks unsafely parked cars anywhere they could fit a vehicle.  There had been closed signs on the bulletin boards and some stapled to the entrance signs, but they were removed by the public. Trash was overflowing the bin and the public was camped in the adjacent meadow.

Down the road a little further, with a wide-open gate at the entrance, we drove into one of our favorite lakeside campgrounds to check it out. Inside were some of our finest agency employees... two law enforcement officers and a local recreation technician. They were all dealing with the gate that had been vandalized and left open, leading to occupation of several of the campsites. It was evident that with the warming weather and changing stay at home orders the public wanted to be outside and enjoy their national forest. It also became clear that trying to manage facilities as closed was, at least here, not necessarily better than trying to keep them open. The good news was the agency was well underway with plans to reopen facilities; the bad news was that it would still take a few weeks to get them ready.

We have learned a lot over the last few months. When our COVID-19 response started, in order to limit agency employees from exposure, the decision to close recreation facilities seemed best. It anchored to our values of safety and interdependence because states were moving to keep citizens home in an effort limit exposure and flatten the curve. Now, many weeks later, armed with a lot of new information and to align with changing orders from the states, it might be better to mitigate risks of exposure with our commitment to managing use while increasing our risk mitigations. Our approaches need not follow the standard playbook. Maybe facilities can close for two days a week so they can be serviced without person-to-person exposure to our staff. Maybe we open a facility but don’t provide a full array of services. These decisions to shift our strategies must also anchor to our values of safety and interdependence.

Being out in the forest and seeing the issues being faced by our staff in the field has been a good reminder for me about the importance of our work. The national forests of America are important to the people of the U.S. And with more than 193 million acres, 159,000 miles of trails and more than 10,000 facilities, it’s no wonder why the public loves them. They have been a refuge during this health crisis and been a place where our citizens have gone to find relief during this pandemic.

Taking stock of the trip, I realized just how I am proud to be a member of the Forest Service and of the work we do for the visitors to our forests.