As coronavirus cases grow, so too does the debate to close America’s most treasured nature sanctuaries, the places where droves have reportedly flocked to escape quarantine walls.
Two of Colorado’s national parks have closed: Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde, joining a list of 120 others around the country as of Wednesday, according to a list maintained by the National Parks Conservation Association.
That’s not enough, says the Washington, D.C.-based advocates. The group is tracking 287 parks in the country, including 10 in Colorado.
“Many of our most iconic national parks remain open during this public health crisis, and this could come at great risk,” read a statement by association President and CEO Theresa Pierno.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks went a step further Tuesday, issuing a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior urging for the closure of all parks. The letter was addressed to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who last month waived entry fees to the preserves.
“It is frightening that you continue to allow and encourage park visitation,” the letter read, accusing Bernhardt of “putting NPS employees and local gateway community members at serious risk to the virus potentially carried by travelers.”
The letter came after The Washington Post reported that at least seven NPS employees had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Monday.
That sounded low to Paul Zaenger, a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park on the Western Slope.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it was higher than that,” he said.
He, along with other Colorado national park representatives The Gazette interviewed, declined to say if there were infected employees in their ranks, citing privacy laws. Vanessa Lacayo, the NPS’s spokeswoman for the intermountain region, also did not say if there were plans to close other parks.
“That decision is on a park-by-park basis; there’s no one size fits all,” she said Wednesday. “So leadership is going through hour by hour to figure out where the areas are that we need to address, and where we need to submit an assessment risk.”
Zaenger recognized Black Canyon’s vulnerable position between two rural convergence points in Montrose and Gunnison County, one of the state’s most diseased areas based on population. Last month, a sign flashed on the highway into Gunnison: “NO TOURIST.”
Black Canyon’s visitation was down for this time of year, Zaenger said — a hint that people were abiding by the governor’s stay-at-home order. But Zaenger wondered if that trend would change as temperatures warm. The park’s 432,819 visitors counted in 2019 were up a staggering 40% compared to the year prior.
“There are concerns on the horizon,” Zaenger said.
As there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which last year recorded more than a half-million visitors for the first time. Visitation appears to be down, said spokeswoman Kathy Faz.
But she, too, wondered about that changing as summer days approach and snow melts to create the park’s iconic scene — Medano Creek surging at the base of the dunes.
“We’re going to be here when this pandemic is over,” Faz reminded would-be travelers. “We’ll welcome everybody back when everyone feels safe and ready to venture out.”
Evidently, they’re not waiting to visit Colorado National Monument, the geologic wonderland near Fruita and Grand Junction.
“We’re definitely seeing increased visitation,” said Arlene Jackson, chief of interpretation at the park.
Like all other national parks still open in the state, Colorado National Monument has shuttered its visitor center and campgrounds. And like all others, the park is encouraging social distancing and using lesser-trafficked trails.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing a little bit of folks not paying attention to that guidance,” Jackson said.
She understands the outcry among Coloradans whose local public lands have been closed.
“We are a federal site, so we are owned essentially by everybody in the country,” she said. “But my recommendation is to wait this out and come visit when conditions are better.”
At Black Canyon, Zaenger echoed that advice.
“Our national parks are full of life, and people want to be there,” he said. “But right now, this isn’t a good thing.”