Last Wednesday, the National Park Service (NPS) announced it would suspend fees to parks to aid people in their quest for social distancing as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the U.S. Then, the weekend came. It didn’t go that well.
People, unencumbered by having to physically be at work or school and motivated to get out of the house, headed outdoors en masse. Hikers packed onto a narrow trail at Zion National Park on Saturday and were chastised by the park on Twitter. Onlookers were nowhere close to being six feet apart looking at cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.’s Tidal Basin and now NPS is asking people to “reconsider” coming to gawk at the blossoms. Zion National Park ended up closing the extremely crowded Angel’s Landing trail—normally one of the park’s most popular spots—along with other roads and all campgrounds after the weekend escapades.
Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Great Smoky Mountains closed on Tuesday after a sharp increase in visitors, and more parks are doing the same or asking for permission to shut their gates. As lockdowns lengthen, and the weather is ideal for outdoor recreation across much of the country, it’s not clear how long the remaining parks that are open can stay open—and if that is safe.
While the official story of closures seems orderly, behind the scenes, a more chaotic picture has emerged: thousands of visitors funneling into crowded hiking trails, the mass theft of toilet paper from park restrooms and one major park currently waiting to see the Department of the Interior will allow it to shut down.
According to National Parks Traveler, sources inside Grand Canyon National Park are saying visitors are stealing toilet paper and hand sanitizer. These reports were corroborated by Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). She said she has heard very similar stories from rangers at other parks across the West.
She said a big reason a lot of the parks that were open over the weekend ended up closing was that people were taking all of the soap, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper—items people have been buying en masse at stores and that are sold out in some places as the pandemic worsens. But without those items in parks, it made it impossible to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines during the covid-19 pandemic.
NPCA is strongly advocating for the government to close all parks to keep rangers, staff, local residents, and visitors safe during the pandemic. The longer parks, monuments, and other NPS sites stay open, the more stress it puts on staff forced to be on the frontlines of the crisis even as more and more cities and states go into lockdown with only essential services allowed to stay open.
“Rangers are working and quarantining themselves away from their own families because they have contact with visitors,” she told Earther.
A ranger who spoke with Earther on the condition of anonymity said “maintenance [rangers] in particular face the hardest challenge since they have to be in heavy contact areas and actively clean areas with lots and lots of human contact.” They also noted rangers they’ve spoken with are “stressed” by being thrust onto the frontlines of a public health crisis.
Despite that, many big parks that see heavy spring visitorship are still open with only a few service modifications, including Grand Canyon National Park. Visitors centers and “contact stations” are closed like at many other parks, but the Mather Campground at the South Rim, the most popular campground in the entire NPS system, remained open until finally being closed on Friday. Brengel said she has heard from one ranger at Grand Canyon who told her they had around 600 contacts with visitors on Bright Angel Trail one day this week. She also heard around 5,000 people were at the Desert View site on the South Rim.
On popular trails in parks like Grand Canyon and Zion, she said, “there is no way for people to avoid crowds.” The CDC recommends keeping at least six feet of distance between people to slow the spread of the virus, something that’s hard to do on a crowded overlook. Covid-19 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals, meaning people who feel healthy enough to go to the park may be carrying the virus and putting their fellow visitors and staff at risk.
When asked for comment on Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for Grand Canyon National Park said in an email that “[w]here it is possible to adhere to federal, state, and local health guidance, outdoor spaces will remain accessible to the public, and entrance-fee free.” The spokesperson also could not confirm the number of visitors had gone up in the wake of fee waiver and outbreak, as “it can be difficult to link changes in visitation to specific factors.”
An internal NPS email sent Wednesday evening and reviewed by Earther reveals that Grand Canyon National Park’s incident management team has submitted documentation requesting closure of the park to NPS and the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, for review. As of now, the request is still pending. The justifications for the request include “objective data and facts regarding critical operational limitations (i.e., public health, wastewater treatment, EMS staffing, etc.).”
The request has support from many parts of the community, including the local chamber of commerce and emergency services. The president and vice president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez and Myron Lizer, wrote a letter reviewed by Earther to Secretary Bernhardt dated March 24 also viewed by Earther requesting the emergency closure of the Grand Canyon, similar to what happened with the now-closed Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks.
Many parks and monuments sit on the edge of small gateway communities that don’t have the resources to care for a high volume of sick people. The Moab Hospital medical director went as far as to tell people to stay away from national parks like neighboring Arches National Park because the town only has a 17-bed hospital. Despite those pleas, the park remains open.
Thankfully, unlike during the government shutdown in 2019, parks that are fully closed cannot be overrun. Joshua Tree National Park is closed with gates chained and it is not “influencers gone wild” like it was during the last government shutdown, according to Nate Abbott, a photographer who lives at the entrance of the park in Joshua Tree and cycles into the park at least once a week.
While the full closure of the park on Saturday caught many by surprise, he told Earther “it wasn’t full mayhem but it was pretty uncomfortable,” as a line of traffic formed when people realized they couldn’t bring their cars inside the park. Now, he said, it is extremely quiet in the park even though it is still open to hikers and cyclists, thanks to parking enforcement outside the park.
Long-term rentals are shutdown, which is a hit to the local economy. Shutting down more parks could put gateway communities in the same bind as other places on lockdown around the country, but Abbott said people need to stay away from vulnerable “end of the road” communities like Joshua Tree that have limited resources.
“It’s really important to have radical empathy for these small communities,” he told Earther.
Shaena is a freelance science journalist based in Phoenix, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter.