In the face of a viral pandemic, not much is considered essential. The executive order enacted by Gov. Roy Cooper on March 27 to slow transmission of COVID-19 lists just nine reasons for which North Carolinians may leave their homes. Included are the basic human requirements of food, health and caring for others — as well as outdoor recreation.
Western North Carolina, dominated by the Blue Ridge Mountains and shot through with the French Broad River, is normally a haven for that particular essential activity. But local government responses to the coronavirus have cut down on places for people to get outdoors. Buncombe County closed all parks and fields on March 17, while Asheville city parks followed suit on March 27. (The county has reopened its river parks and the Collier Cove Nature Preserve as of May 1.) Most of the area’s state parks, including the Chimney Rock, Gorges, Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell parks, are also shuttered.
For a time, the vast public lands managed by national agencies in WNC remained a retreat for area residents. Although Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, both overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway had closed many campgrounds and visitor facilities by the end of March, most of their roads and trails stayed open through the first two weeks of April.
That changed on April 13. Citing governmental guidance on social distancing and public health, the Forest Service released a lengthy list of shutdowns throughout Pisgah, including popular trails such as Graveyard Fields and Rainbow Falls. The Blue Ridge Parkway issued its own directive on April 15, banning vehicular traffic from over 118 miles of the scenic road throughout WNC. Among the closures was the entire 76-mile stretch from the French Broad River overlook in Arden to the parkway’s southern terminus in Cherokee.
“My whole world seems to be closing,” says Danny Bernstein, an Asheville-based outdoors writer who regularly leads hikes for the Carolina Mountain Club and Friends of the Smokies. Referencing state guidelines for social distancing, she continues, “Staying 6 feet apart is easy on the trail. But how can we have outdoor activity if almost every piece of public land is closed?”
Too much love
Leesa Brandon, a spokesperson for the Blue Ridge Parkway, sympathizes with Bernstein’s complaint. “We love these places as much as the visitors love these places and we want them to be available to folks,” Brandon says. “But we know right now we have to proceed with an abundance of caution and make decisions in the interest of everybody’s safety.”
The parkway’s latest closures in WNC, Brandon continues, were largely driven by heavy visitation that she says made it impossible for crowds to practice social distancing. Less traveled parts of the road, including much of its length in Virginia, have remained open, even though Virginia and North Carolina have similar statewide stay-at-home orders.
The U.S. Forest Service also cites a sudden spike in visitors as the main reason for the Pisgah shutdowns. Spokesperson Cathy Dowd confirms that closures were assessed on a site-by-site basis to limit congregations of people; however, she did not provide specific visitation data or trigger points at which given sites are considered unsafe.
“We’re following the lead of local government and emergency management agencies to reduce high-risk activities that may put emergency responders at additional risk when conducting search and rescue operations,” Dowd says. “Our local partners have asked us to help reduce the number of visitors coming to Western North Carolina to reduce demand on supplies, services and risk of exposure.”
Enforcement of the parkway closures will be handled by its 30 law enforcement rangers, a number Brandon says is in line with usual staffing. She added that camping violations are also holding steady compared with those in previous years. Dowd said the Forest Service had put up locked gates and barricades in some closed areas but declined to share any information about ranger patrols.
Those who violate the closures in either federal area could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail, pursuant to the Code of Federal Regulations Title 36. Brandon and Dowd say their agencies hope visitors will voluntarily comply with the restrictions.
Boots on the ground
Yet according to Debby Jones, president of the Carolina Mountain Club, many visitors continue to create challenges for federal lands in both their numbers and behavior. On a recent trip to Rattlesnake Lodge, a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway to the northeast of Asheville, Jones recalls having seen 20 cars parked along a narrow strip near the trailhead and 15 people socializing around the historic lodge site itself.
Many garbage cans along the parkway are overflowing, Jones continues, and levels of trash on the trails are higher than she’s ever seen. She theorizes that parks have been overwhelmed by an influx of new visitors, driven there by the shutdown of all other recreation opportunities, who don’t share the “Leave No Trace” ethics of most outdoors enthusiasts.
“They had a total disregard for those guidelines, and that left [national land managers] no choice but to shut down everything,” Jones says. “They don’t have the support services to deal with all this. They don’t have the funding. They just don’t have the personnel to do it.”
Will Harlan, lead organizer for the I Heart Pisgah alliance of WNC conservation groups, supports the closures but notes that resources presented a major challenge to national lands well before COVID-19 hit. From 2010-18, despite increasing visitation, the Forest Service’s recreation management budget decreased by 16%. And although funding for the National Park Service went up 12% over the same period, that rise didn’t keep up with the simultaneous 18% bump in visitors.
“Ideally, maybe public lands agencies could have instituted and enforced quotas for popular trailheads and access points, just as many grocery stores have done,” Harlan says. “However, the Forest Service is woefully understaffed and underfunded, and there hasn’t been leadership at the federal level to implement these kinds of policies. Instead, the federal government has prioritized rolling back environmental regulations and pushing ahead with oil and gas leases on public lands during this pandemic.”
But Brandon pushes back when asked if more resources would have changed how the parkway is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Even if the park could have hired more staff to enact capacity limits at parking areas or ensure social distancing along trails, she points out, those employees would still be coming into contact with potential viral carriers.
“It’s all very hypothetical because that’s not something we have in place typically or normally anyway,” Brandon says. “I don’t know that, necessarily, additional money or additional staffing would equate to our ability to keep things open right now, because it wouldn’t be considered safe to bring additional people into the area or have those staff be exposed in ways that required servicing the public in a potentially unsafe way.”
Recreation at rest
For some WNC residents, national public lands represent not only a place of respite but also a source of livelihood. Some outfitters and outdoors equipment shops, while recognizing the need for restrictions to preserve public health, say they’re feeling a major squeeze on their revenues due to the closures.
Kevin Howell owns Pisgah Forest-based Davidson River Outfitters, which runs many of its fishing expeditions in the national forest. His business has been shut since March 30, and he says his customers depend on access to public lands when looking to book their trips.
Nonetheless, Howell says, the closures are necessary to protect many of the rural WNC counties that contain national lands. “Most counties have limited medical staff and facilities, and an outbreak of COVID-19 would be devastating to these communities,” he says. “Hopefully, everyone will comply with the stay-at-home orders, and we can get this pandemic behind us and get the forest opened back up sooner than expected.”
That necessity doesn’t make the closures any easier, says Nathan Johnson, who manages The Hub and Pisgah Tavern bike shop in Pisgah Forest. April is usually the store’s busiest month, he says, with much of his revenue coming from out-of-state visitors. Some orders have come in online, he says, but the lack of in-person customers has “definitely devastated” the store’s beer sales, equipment rentals and apparel business.
Johnson adds that, although sales have been down, the store was recently “inundated with calls about what was going on and what was still legal to hike and bike.” Requests for clarification to the Forest Service ranger station, he says, have sometimes yielded conflicting information about how the closures impact bike riders versus vehicle traffic.
“It was rolled out in a very confusing manner, which was difficult for us to manage,” Johnson says. “We appreciated the Forest Service’s attempt to leave a few trailheads open for us locals that desperately need to get out. It unfortunately made those areas packed at times, which was a bit counterintuitive.”
The path back
The question now on everyone’s mind is when these public lands will reopen. The Forest Service’s order set a tentative end date of Thursday, Aug. 13, but Dowd says the hope is for restrictions to be lifted sooner. Meanwhile, Brandon confirms that the Blue Ridge Parkway’s closures are all in effect until further notice.
“We’ve been monitoring and will continue to reevaluate what’s happening at the local level to inform our decisions moving forward,” Brandon says. “I don’t know what those dates are going to be, so we couldn’t obviously indicate a date in any of our closure decisions.”
At an April 23 press conference, Gov. Cooper suggested that he could direct parks to open as early as Saturday, May 9, during the first phase of a gradual rollback of stay-at-home restrictions. That move would only occur if the state had made two weeks of continual progress on a number of COVID-19 disease trends and improved its capacity for testing and contact tracing.
Jones with the Carolina Mountain Club, who says she’s in weekly contact with public agencies, expects hiking to return on a longer timeline, more like several months than several weeks. And even when the threat of COVID-19 begins to subside, she points out that the trails will need extensive work to deal with a backlog of erosion damage and fallen trees.
Those itching to get on the trails before the general public has access, Jones adds, can join the CMC’s maintenance crews, which will work every day of the week once given the go-ahead by land managers. She encourages anyone with a love of the outdoors, regardless of experience, to contact Ron Navik at TrailsMtc@CarolinaMountainClub.org for more information.
Until then, fellow CMC member Bernstein says she and others are still meeting up informally for hikes at places that are still open, although they no longer carpool and rigorously practice social distancing while on the trail. Among her regular haunts is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail; repeatedly hiking the same stretch of ground, she says, has given her more appreciation of how wildflowers emerge through the season than in any previous spring.
“As a group, CMC members may be old, but we’re healthy, without a compromised immune system,” Bernstein says. “We can’t afford to sit around waiting for the pandemic to pass. We need to stay active or we’ll never get back on the trail.”