The past several months have certainly been challenging for many people in a lot of ways. And as we all navigate this “new normal” of the COVID-19 landscape, our trails, forests, and parks have been seeing record visitation. At the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, we believe that when we are connected with nature, our lives are better. As such, we are happy to see so many people turning to the great outdoors as a place of refuge during this challenging time, including some who are discovering our wild backyard for the first time. But with our extreme love for our public places also comes a great impact. These places don’t exist by accident, and they certainly don’t care for themselves.
Today we want to talk about the faces behind your favorite public spaces: our land management agency partners. These are the park rangers, campground hosts, trail maintenance crew members, staff at ranger stations, forest firefighters, and others who care for our trails, parks, and forests.
While we’re all very excited to see most of our favorite spots are now open, it’s important to keep in mind that things aren’t necessarily “business as usual.” Just as members of the public are taking precautions to stay healthy during the pandemic and may be facing obstacles at work such as budget cuts, reduced hours, or even a sick co-worker and required quarantine periods — agency staff members face many of these same challenges. They have been working hard to re-open public spaces and tackle the backlog of maintenance that exists, but in many cases the pandemic has meant getting a much later start than usual, combined with overall reduced capacity.
While you may not always see a staff member when you’re out on the trails, most of the outdoor spaces you love could not exist without their time, energy, and passion for these lands. As we kick off National Forest Week and celebrate the importance of our forests and grasslands, we wanted to take this opportunity to say a big “thank you” to all of the incredible Forest Service staff members, as well as our other state, county, and municipal land management partners who work hard every day to provide recreational access for all.
“At the National Forest Foundation, we work closely with Forest Service staff on conservation efforts and promoting responsible recreation across our entire 193 million-acre National Forest System. We deeply appreciate the commitment that Forest Service personnel have to serving the public and maintaining forest health and resources for all Americans.” — Patrick Shannon, National Forest Foundation Pacific Northwest Program Director
As you head out to enjoy your favorite parks and trails, we hope you’ll remember that your actions not only impact the lands that you love, but also the people who care for them. Flexibility, patience, and empathy are especially important right now. We are all in this together, and it’s more important than ever to recreate responsibly.
We asked a few of our partners to share an inside look at what they’ve been facing . . .
Q&A With A Few of Our Land Management Agency Partners
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve been facing due to COVID-19?
Shannon Egger, Washington State Department of Natural Resources: “One challenge we’ve faced is that since our trails are already frequently visited this time of year, we are trying to educate and encourage the public to visit places that are less crowded, but also discourage traveling far distances to get to those places.
Another challenge we’ve faced was the halt of field work during the closure, as well as getting it started again now that state lands have reopened. Many of the people who work in conservation and recreation positions do so because they have a passion for the outdoors, similar to many of our visitors. The closures disrupted normal work patterns for many, whether that’s transitioning into primarily working from home, managing land closures, or even being furloughed. One specific example are all of the trail crews that were unable to work and volunteer work parties that were cancelled during the closures. We rely on their help to keep our trails in good shape, especially with the high levels of use they’re experiencing now that we’ve reopened. Although somewhat delayed, we’ve thankfully had some success in creating safe guidelines to bring trail crews back to work on our landscape.”
Rick Oakley, Washington State Parks: “We lost two months of spring prep time to get the parks ready for the summer crowds and the “summer crowds” arrived nearly two months early. At our current staffing levels, we only have time to keep up with daily maintenance, so cleanup from winter storms will continue to be delayed until we are able to hire seasonal staff.”
We could all use some positivity . . . any success stories you can share from the past several weeks?
Shannon Egger, Washington State Department of Natural Resources: “One thing that was positive during the reopening was that land managers of popular trailheads on state lands (i.e. DNR and State Parks since state lands were the only lands reopening at that time) had help on reopening weekend from King County Sheriff’s Office and King County Search and Rescue. They posted officers and search and rescue volunteers at some of the most popular trailheads in the Snoqualmie Corridor to educate visitors on hiking essentials in order to reduce the need for potential rescues.”
Rick Oakley, Washington State Parks: “We have seen a large increase in hikers choosing to hike when the parks are less busy. Many are hiking on weekdays and some are arriving before 8 a.m. on the weekend in an effort to avoid crowds. This has taken some of the strain off our peak visitation times (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).”
Deborah Kelly, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest: “Many of our volunteers and partner organizations have stepped up in a big way. Many provide great support every season, but this season they’ve really rallied to help us with messaging and communicating with the broader public. We’ve had volunteers assist with getting some sites opened by coming in to help pick up debris and clean picnic tables and campsites. There has been good synergy among interest groups and it’s benefiting the public.”
How can the public best support land managers right now?
Shannon Egger, Washington State Department of Natural Resources: “Right now, the best way to support land managers is to follow the current guidance set by the Department of Health, as well as staying informed with tips from the #RecreateResponsibly Coalition which can be found online at recreateresponsibly.org. Some of the tips that benefit land managers the most include staying close to home and choosing trails that are less popular. Make sure you have a couple of back-up options in the event that when you arrive, the trailhead is full or nearing capacity. Ensure that you have all of the proper gear and supplies necessary for the weather and activity you’re participating in. Don’t take unnecessary risks that could cause additional strain on first responders and health care resources. Practice Leave No Trace principles, including respecting public lands and packing your trash out. Make sure to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer as many bathroom facilities are either closed or are not maintained regularly.”
In the spirit of National Forest Week, what can the public do to help care for our National Forests?
Deborah Kelly, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest: “For those who have an interest in recreation and impacts on National Forests, one thing they could do is look for lesser used areas of the National Forests to explore.
The other thing people could do is learn how to engage to provide input to the many forest restoration projects that are happening across the National Forests. Sign up to follow a project, join the conversation, and share your interest and values. Learn about natural resources issues, National Forest management, and why there is a need to restore these special places.
National Forests belong to all of us, and we all benefit from what they provide – clean water, clean air, habitat for wildlife, space for recreation, forest products, and jobs. When we take care of our forests, we are caring for people who depend on the forest – which is all of us. We’ve seen, in this crisis, the power of what a community coming together can do, and we can harness that power for our forests by creating a community that understands and care about these lands, and becomes involved in the issues they are facing because they understand why it matters.”
“To all the agency staff out there: thank you. Thank you for the all-but-invisible work you put in, day after day, to keep our lands healthy and thriving. Thank you for stretching already thin budgets to keep campsites open, roads drivable, and trails passable. Thank you for serving as the eyes on the ground that monitor species health and diversity. Thank you for working tirelessly to fold your observations into new and better management. And thank you for taking the time out to speak with us when we cross paths in the woods — we all benefit from your expertise, passion, and commitment.” — Nicky Pasi, Upper Yakima Basin Community Coordinator for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust
Have you ever had a great interaction with an agency staff member? Feeling inspired to share your general thanks for the work they do? Please consider leaving a positive note here!