The first day of spring was beautiful in Oregon. Blue skies and warm sun greeted the state on March 19, tempting people out to beaches and hiking trails, snowy mountains and waterfall viewpoints.
A week later, virtually all outdoor recreation in Oregon had closed, including every national forest, all state parks, most national parks and a growing number of local parks across the state as officials responded to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a population that just couldn’t stay away from nature.
The closures coincided with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order banning all nonessential travel outside the home until further notice. The order also shut down playgrounds and closed all public and private campgrounds in the state.
The sudden wave of closures left many Oregonians reeling, wondering if there was some way to keep our cherished outdoor spaces open while maintaining public health. How and why were these severe decisions made?
Oregon State Parks
As the coronavirus began to spread across the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had a plan in place: advise all park visitors to maintain social distance, while beginning an orderly two-week shutdown of state park campgrounds.
At the time, public health officials were still recommending people go out hiking as a way to relax and maintain physical health. As long as people maintained the recommended six feet of social distance, there wouldn’t be a problem, they said.
But as the spring equinox sun carried into the first weekend of Oregon schools’ spring break, it quickly became clear that social distancing in parks was going to be a tall order.
“You always hold out hope that people will listen when you say, ‘don’t clump up,’” state parks spokesman Chris Havel said. “That didn’t happen.”
Instead people flooded state parks. Day-use areas and campgrounds were crowded. It was true in the Willamette Valley and way out in the high desert, but especially on the Oregon coast.
Throngs of visitors at beaches and in small towns alarmed local residents. Officials in towns up and down the coast told visitors to leave, closing local campgrounds, shutting down hotels and short-term lodging, and giving tourists 24 hours to go home.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not just an opportunity for a traveling vacation,” Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber said in a video message. “It’s a threat to our very lives.”
That development shook up the state parks department’s plans, Havel said. Officials suddenly saw the urgency of the moment. On Sunday afternoon, March 22, the department closed all campgrounds and day-use sites immediately, shutting down the entire state park system.
“This is not going the way we expected, and the local communities made a very good point,” Havel said of the department’s thinking that weekend. “The timelines here aren’t being dictated by our plans.”Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge, always a popular getaway for the Portland area, was also slammed that weekend. Hikers packed popular trails. People crowded waterfall viewpoints. Cars lined the shoulder of the Historic Columbia River Highway when parking lots filled.
The gorge is officially managed as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a complex patchwork of state, federal, county, city and private lands in Oregon and Washington. Each entity is free to make its own decisions regarding closures.
But when Oregon state parks closed to the public, it raised a red flag for officials in the gorge.
One by one, agencies began closing their trails to the public. Parks in Washington’s Skamania County closed early, along with natural areas managed by nonprofits The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
“We realized there was no way we could enforce social distancing,” said Keven Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Social distancing works if you have a handful of people out there, and nobody needs to use the bathroom, and nobody needs to park next to another car, but how often does that happen?”
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages most land in the Columbia Gorge, had planned to simply urge social distancing, but after the busy weekend and following other closures in the gorge, forest officials knew they needed stronger action.
The following week began with piecemeal closures of the most popular areas in the gorge: the vaunted “waterfall corridor” in Oregon, as well as popular trails like Dog Mountain and Angels Rest. But there was a concern that those closures wouldn’t necessarily reduce crowds, pushing people instead to other areas that were still open.
“We have to look at the context of the Columbia River Gorge, and it just does attract those crowds for miles around,” said Rachel Pawlitz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in the gorge. “We’re in a situation where if you’re the last site left open, it’s going to be the point of conversion.”
The response that came Thursday, March 26, was not only to close all campgrounds, trailheads and day-use areas in the gorge – what are typically referred to as “developed recreation sites” – but to shut down all forest land completely.
Pawlitz said the strong response stemmed from the way the gorge is set up. Unlike other national forests in Oregon, there are no winding forest roads with dispersed campsites and remote hiking trails. Everything is accessed through busy highways, which forces a bottleneck at the entry points.
“People will try to use creative access points to trails,” like bushwhacking through the forest from the side of the road, Pawlitz said. “When we had to look at the big picture, we realized that there wasn’t a simple way to do a developed site closure.”
The Columbia River Gorge forest closure was announced simultaneously with the Mount Hood National Forest and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington.
While national forests were given the authority to make their own decisions about public closures, many made decisions together after internal discussions. Over the course of the week, small bunches of national forests came to the same decision: a temporary closure of all developed recreation areas, including all trailheads, campgrounds, sno parks, day-use sites and boat launches.
By Friday, March 27, all 11 national forests in Oregon, as well as the five in Washington, had effectively closed to the public.
But why close all recreation sites, instead of just the most popular spots?
Tom Ibsen, the developed recreation manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and Washington, said trying to control crowds in a national forest is like squeezing air in a balloon: take away one section, and it all just moves to another.
“I think people are just kind of desperate for an outlet here,” Ibsen said. “Some forests are still finding that they’re having visitation issues.”
People flouting park closures has been an issue at national forests and state parks alike, though not a huge one. Forest and state park officials said rangers have caught people hopping gates or ignoring signs in recent days.
So far, the approach to violations has been education, rather than citations, officials said.
“Our goal really is to gain voluntary compliance,” Ibsen said. “We want to educate the visitors and understand that our goal here is to align with the governor and get everybody to stay home.”
That’s also been the approach of some organizations that usually cater to hikers in the Pacific Northwest.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association, a nonprofit charged with maintaining the famed 2,650-mile trail through California, Oregon and Washington, strongly urged hikers to cancel their plans for 2020. Some hikers had already quit jobs, or sold homes in order to tackle the trail, which makes canceling plans a huge burden.
“But these circumstances should not justify putting other lives at risk,” the Pacific Crest Trail Association said in a March 19 announcement. “Limiting the spread of the virus – and the associated economic fallout – requires sacrifice from everyone.”
After national forest closures in the Pacific Northwest, huge swaths of the Pacific Crest Trail are now off-limits to hikers for the time being.
There are still some places where people are legally allowed to recreate – for now. Wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remain open, as well as several day-use areas and trails managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Some city and regional parks also remain open, including Portland parks and those operated by Metro.
Even some areas of the national forests remain open, including dispersed camping areas and some forest roads. The U.S. Forest Service is allowing people to continue hunting, fishing and gathering firewood in those areas, but only if their survival depends on it.
The measures are difficult for many Oregonians, who have grown accustomed to having the freedom to explore the mountains, the forests, the ocean and desert. Land management officials can empathize as fellow lovers of the outdoors, but they still urge people to make a personal sacrifice, and stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
“So many people look to the outdoors as a place to relax and destress and escape,” said Catherin Caruso, regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. “I think forest service employees feel that very acutely, because we feel the same way.”