National closures curb outdoor recreation in WNC

Mountains-to-Sea Trail east of Asheville
LONESOME TRAIL: Outdoors writer and avid hiker Danny Bernstein finds herself returning frequently to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, pictured here east of Asheville, as COVID-19 restrictions close other public lands. Photo by Danny Bernstein

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

Cars along the Blue Ridge Parkway
INTO THE WOODS: Cars line the Blue Ridge Parkway about 1.5 miles south of Brevard Road in the Bent Creek area on April 11. This section of the parkway is now closed. Photo by Mark Barrett

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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5 thoughts on “National closures curb outdoor recreation in WNC

  1. Tony Weiner

    This is a travesty. Too bad our constitutional rights are being trampled on by a totalitarian state and federal government. We as Americans can take risks without government trying to dictate our life choices and free will. Very sad. We don’t need to be coddled and told how to act in using common sense for health and safety of our fellow citizens. We have been complying and so far are leading the world in confirmed cases and deaths. Government acted too late and keeping this quarantine going is yielding no positive result at this point. My humble opinion.

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    • bsummers

      ” We have been complying ”

      Except for all the people who aren’t. It isn’t just Trump who has made this situation worse than it should be – it’s the thousands of idiots across the US who go to church, go to the beach, stage demonstrations trying to end the closure, etc. all while not wearing masks or practicing safe distancing. All so they can thumb their noses at ‘big gubmint’.

      If you want to get sick and die, that’s your right I suppose. But you don’t have the right to deliberately spread a deadly disease.

    • Jason Williams

      Let’s say a natural disaster hit our mountains, say a forest fire, or landslide, or what-have-you. What would the protocols be?
      An emergency declaration would be issued, and the affected areas would be closed off for an indefinite time period. It isn’t totalitarianism, it’s safety. Not only is it unsafe for random dummkopfs to be in there, but it’s also unsafe for the emergency teams who’ll have to go in there and rescue said dummkopfs after they fall into a ravine because of loose soil.
      Now let’s apply that small scenario on a national scale. Oh, wait, we don’t have to thought experiment that, because it’s actually happening. There is a global pandemic. We are in a state of emergency, it’s been declared by the President, and nearly all the Governors of the US. Why should we not follow similar protocols?
      Granted, the Coronavirus isn’t as obvious as a forest fire, and it’s probably not lurking behind every tree on the trail, but there is a lot we don’t know about this virus, and it seems to be checking us at every step. So I say, in the interest of the health of society as a whole, why don’t we keep our dummkopfs out of the places where they’ve been asked not to go.
      Things will re-open again. During the Polio epidemics of the ’50’s there were several summers were outdoor activities were cancelled entirely. Communities bounced back after we developed a vaccine for that, and things will after we cure this too. Have a little patience, and sacrifice a little of your comfort to help all those around you.
      In my humble opinion, your “free will” in regards to this situation looks a lot like narcissism and virtue signaling.

  2. Mark H

    Is this really helping anything? I say no. People need fresh air and nature to relieve stress. That outweighs slight risk of catching this virus while using mask and distancing.

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  3. Bright

    You’re right, Daniel. It’s a sad situation. Aville never had much smarts anyway, as evidences their current detrimental situation. Education comes at a deficit to these “people.” Best advice is to move to a more humane and eco minded place. The rats are taking over, just like they have in all the restaurants that have been closed…and the public lands are wanted for real estate development! Arggh

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