Five Land Managers Get Real on the Pandemic and Public Lands
A year after COVID-19 pandemic began to change our lives in innumerable ways, including in how we get outside, WTA sat down with our land manager partners to talk about the last year. We discussed the opportunities and challenges from the pandemic and the key role that public lands played in people’s mental and physical health. We also talked about the impacts of unprecedented visitors to public lands when agencies were underfunded and trying to keep their staff safe during a public-health crisis. Everyone we talked to was grateful that public lands could be there for people who desperately need exercise, escape and restoration. Our partners also have real concerns for the long-term management of public lands — and they hope to help everyone see how they can ensure that these special spaces so they will be there for generations to come.
"It was a big year," said Leah Dobey of the state Department of Natural Resources, in what might be the understatement of the year.
A year after COVID-19 pandemic began to change our lives in innumerable ways, including in how we get outside, WTA sat down with some of our land manager partners to talk about the last year. We discussed the opportunities and challenges from the pandemic and the key role that public lands played in people’s mental and physical health. We also talked about the impacts of unprecedented visitors to public lands when agencies were underfunded and trying to keep their staff safe during a public-health crisis.
Everyone we talked to was grateful that public lands could be there for people who desperately need exercise, escape and restoration. Our partners also have real concerns for the long-term management of public lands — and they hope to help everyone see how they can ensure that these special spaces so they will be there for generations to come.
What are your overall reflections on the last year as it relates to public lands and the pandemic?
Leah Dobey, Washington State Department of Natural Resources statewide recreation manager: It was a big year. Public land and recreation were truly vital for folks’ mental, physical and spiritual health. The benefits of being outside are known to lots of us but, when everything else was stripped away, this was one of the few ways left to find that much-needed outlet.
Ed Girard, Washington State Parks operations manager: As soon as we (Washington State Parks) reopened, we knew it was going to be a record year. And it was. A couple of interesting things about this year was that the sheer number of new people we interacted with really helped staff feel valued. It was also interesting that many folks this year took it upon themselves to get outside for the first time —as opposed to being introduced to the activity by a friend or family member.
Jon Meier, U.S. Forest Service, Entiat Ranger District recreation manager: Last year was different in both good and bad ways. Scores of people came out, highlighting the need for public lands, and it was good that we could be there for folks. Every year the numbers of visitors have been increasing, but this year the growth was extraordinary and the staffing levels weren’t able to meet the needs.
Les Moscoso, U.S. Forest Service, Wenatchee River Ranger District recreation manager: Staff went above and beyond this year, but there were major challenges. All the new safety protocols meant everything took longer. When an area was busy, it wasn’t always safe for our staff to be there. And instead of four-day weekends, in places like the Wenatchee River district, it was busy seven days a week. If we were lucky, we could come in on a Tuesday and try to pick up from the crowds.
Did you personally find the outdoors as a place of refuge last year?
Leah (DNR): With a 1-year-old, most of my adventures were close-to-home, walking and mountain biking local trails. But it was still great to get outside and you could sense the camaraderie. It has always been there in the rec community, but our shared struggles of the last year really brought us together.
Amber Forest, Washington State Parks area manager, park ranger 4, Whatcom Bays area (Larrabee/Birch Bay/Peace Arch State Parks): I get out all the time cross-country skiing, hiking, running, I even have a little trailer that allowed me to take some quarantined vacations. I feel lucky to be able to get out so often.
Ed (State Parks): I started camping again and looking for escapes off my normal path. I needed the health and emotional outlet of just getting outside of the day-to-day.
Jon (Entiat): I explored a lot of BLM lands where there was less crowding and found some spots I may not have discovered otherwise.
Les (Wenatchee): I stayed closer to home than I usually would in the summer. I was able to explore some places I hadn’t been before in my district.
What were some of the positive things you experienced around people getting outside last year?
Leah (DNR): It was wonderful to see so many new visitors connect with the outdoors and have that moment when it clicked that there was more to it than just being outside. I saw this not only on the ground but also with my online community, which was worn down during the pandemic. The outdoors became a bright spot not just to restore personally but to also connect with others, friends and family. It filled a need for joy and escape. A hike or a camping trip became like taking a deep breath that made it easier to face the other parts of life.
Amber (State Parks NW): In 2020 there were huge increases in use but also a change in how folks used the parks. As people were shut out of their normal outlets, restaurants and bars, they just needed some place to escape to and the parks were someplace safe. In addition to hiking, biking and camping, we saw day-use areas become a substitute for restaurants. People would bring their meals and eat at picnic tables. At Peace Arch State Park, with the Canadian Border closed, meeting in the park was the only way for families and friends from across the border to see each other. We saw more than eight weddings and so many family visits.
We also saw folks find more than just a way to fill the time while their normal activities were closed. I remember one family of four with two young kids. They had come to camp for one night and it poured on them but they had such a good time that they stayed the whole weekend. Even with the rain, you saw the spark of joy in the kids eyes and the dad told us with a smile “we will be back.”
What were the key challenges from the increased demand for outdoor spaces?
Leah (DNR): Meeting the explosive demand with existing budgets was limiting. We always want to help folks have the best experiences, but there is only so much that is possible without the resources. More people take more energy to support — from cleaning up bathrooms and trailheads to helping visitors learn the where and how to best enjoy these spaces. There was also just some disrespectful behavior — not unintended harm but intentional destruction — that took a toll on the land and the staff.
Ed (State Parks): We were some of the first places to open up, so we had to be at the forefront of establishing best practices and working with health agencies to ensure the safety of our staff.Staffing was tight for sure and there were definitely hot spots. It will take awhile to fully understand some of the impacts, especially in places where there have been social trails created.
Les (Wenatchee): In the backcountry, there were more heated discussions. People who felt they had a right to be outside but didn’t understand the regulations led to increased alterations, more pass violations and ticketing. It was truly exhausting in places like the Enchantments, where our six backcountry rangers had to have this same conversation over and over again.
What do you think can be done to reduce these challenges in the future?
Amber (State Parks NW): We just didn’t have enough infrastructure to support the use. For 2021, we have ordered more garage cans, cleaning supplies and hired more seasonal staff to help answer questions. We are also working to ensure our signage and information is as up-to-date as possible
Les (Wenatchee): We are having these conversations at the agency now. Funds for staffing haven’t really changed so we are looking at another challenging year. But there also needs to be some changes of habits with visitors. They need to plan ahead and be prepared. Have a plan B and if it is crowded, consider finding somewhere else.
Were there unexpected partnerships or opportunities in 2020?
Leah (DNR): The Recreate Responsibly Coalition was a phenomenal way that organizations came together. We didn’t know what an amazing resource for collaboration it would become. We already partnered with a lot of the groups, like WTA, but COVID really pushed us to take that collaboration a step further.
Using technology to connect with user groups was powerful and helped create community when we couldn’t be in person. Being part of public webinars like the ones that WTA hosted was one way we could help get the word out. It was cool to see how many folks wanted to hear from those of us behind the scenes about what was happening.
Amber (State Parks NW): WTA has been a great partner for a long time. They put in thousands of hours of work each year at Larrabee. When volunteer work had to be put on hold in 2020, we noticed that they weren’t there and we were so pleased when we were able to welcome WTA volunteers back. As best practices evolved over the year, WTA was so easy to work with. They were always looking to get work done safely and efficiently – it is a partnership we really appreciate. WTA does most of the trail work at the park.
Ed (State Parks): Federal, state and local agencies came together. We began to look more at the big picture. We worked to be more coordinated and consistent in our management efforts. We also got serious about tackling some important work around better understanding our day-use visitors. I am excited to continue this work with partners like WTA to better understand who is visiting State Parks and keep working to better engage with these new visitors. I think we have a real opportunity right now to take first-time users and turn them into lifetime lovers of our parks.
Jon (Entiat): While not unexpected, we were so impressed by and grateful for the flexibility and passion of all our partners. The local chapter of the Northwest Motorcycle Association, for example, had to push back and rework their chainsaw training several times but it came together and they were able to put in some serious volunteer hours and clear a lot of trails.
What are the key messages you want to share with people getting outdoors in the months to come?
Leah (DNR): Getting outdoors is a way to find joy, peace and excitement but when you go outside you also take on a shared responsibility of stewardship for the places you are visiting. You need to look out for the lands and the other people that are out with you.
Amber (State Parks NW): Please, recreate responsibly. Enjoy your state parks but come prepared. Things might look a little different this year and doing a little research ahead of time will help you have a good time during your visit.
Les (Wenatchee): Recognize that there are a lot of folks wanting to do the same activities you are trying to do, so plan ahead and be prepared. Get reservations if you can and have a back up plan in mind.
Jon (Entiat): We would love to hear from folks. What does the public want their public lands to look like? These issues are going to continue, whether it is now or 5 years from now. We manage these spaces, but the public has a say in what that means. Do you want more parking lots in the forest or do you want permits? People have invested in gear and are going to continue to use it, so let’s work together to figure out the best future for these places.
The pandemic has only helped strengthen WTA’s belief that trails are a must have, offering so many important benefits. A year of rapid changes and innovative solutions have strengthened our communication and collaboration. We hope those powerful partnerships will continue to inspire everyone. It is up to all of us to come together to steward and advocate for the future of our public lands. WTA is committed to trails for everyone, forever — and we know it will take everyone who loves the outdoors to make it happen.
As we look ahead, we are still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. But together, we can make the outdoors community even stronger, and care for lands at the same time. As you prepare for the height of hiking season, be prepared and know what you need before you go out. Be kind — places and your fellow hikers should be better off after your encounter. We hope you’ll take the lessons learned from 2020 and be a champion for trails.