Crowds swarm the public lands

Land managers and gateway communities struggle to keep up

Andria Huatamaki

Last spring, as the first wave of measures to halt the spread of coronavirus kicked in, travel screeched nearly to a halt, and the hospitality and tourism industry slowed considerably. Locals in public-land gateway towns predicted doom — and also breathed a big sigh of relief. Their one-trick-pony economies would surely suffer, but at least all the newly laid-off residents would have the surrounding land to themselves for a change.

For a few months, the prognostications — both positive and negative — held true. Visitation to national parks crashed, vanishing altogether in places like Arches and Canyonlands, which were shut down for the month of April. Sales and lodging tax revenues spiraled downward in gateway towns. Officials in many a rural county pleaded with or ordered nonresidents to stay home, easing the burden on the public lands. It was enough to spawn a million #natureishealing memes.

In the end, however, the respite was short-lived. By midsummer, even as temperatures climbed to unbearable heights, forests burned and the air filled with smoke, people began traveling again, mostly by car and generally closer to home. They inundated the public lands, from the big, heavily developed national parks like Zion and the humbler state parks, to dispersed campsites on Bureau of Land Management and national forest lands.

It was more than just a return of the same old crowds. Millions of outdoor-recreation rookies apparently turned to the public lands to escape the pandemic. Nearly every national park in the West had relatively few visitors from March until July. But then numbers surged to record-breaking levels during the latter part of 2020 — a trend that was reflected and then some on the surrounding non-park lands.

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.