Taking Care of Our Trails and Parks in the Midst of COVID-19

Posted 05/22/20 by Amy Kapp, Eric Oberg in America's Trails

Wissahickon Trail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Photo by Patrick Wittwer | CC by 2.0

Across the country, trail use is surging. At its highest point since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of trail users spiked to rates nearly 200% higher than those during the same time last year, and have remained higher than average despite an unseasonably cold and rainy spring in much of the country.

This surge in trail use has introduced trail management and maintenance challenges that have led managers to seek new strategies to adjust—where serving more with less has become the reality as the impacts of the pandemic continue.

Though some parks and trails have been closed due to overcrowding, many have remained open as trail managers seek to provide local residents with safe, equitable access to places for outdoor activity and transportation to vital jobs and services.

As trails remain front and center in providing outdoor opportunities and mobility for Americans, managers continue to explore new ways to work with their communities to ensure positive experiences for the record numbers of users in the face of limited maintenance resources, reduced staffing and curtailed volunteer activities.

Agencies Are Thinking Differently About Staffing—And Trail Users Should, Too

Cleveland Metroparks - Rocky River Reservation in Ohio  | Photo by Eric Oberg, courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Cleveland Metroparks - Rocky River Reservation in Ohio | Photo by Eric Oberg, courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

On the first day of May, Cleveland Metroparks announced the cancelation of many of their summer program staples—including concert series and camps—to help eliminate group activities and promote social distancing in the midst of the pandemic. The award-winning agency—which manages golf courses, lakefront parks and more than 300 miles of trails—also noted that some 650 employees had been negatively affected by COVID-19, having incurred salary reductions, furloughs or layoffs brought on by cuts in revenue from the closure of popular revenue generators like its nationally renowned zoo.

The irony is that, like trail and park agencies across the country, the hits to capacity happened during a period that Cleveland Metroparks has noted record numbers in usage—with increases clocking in at about 70% higher than any in the history of measured use for their system, according to Chief Operating Officer Joseph V. Roszak.

To reduce overcrowding, Roszak said Cleveland Metroparks has joined the “open streets” movement, closing down some sections of roadways and parking areas within their reservations, with a goal of increasing space for walking and biking in order to keep the parks and trails open to visitors.

“We were fearful that our parks and trails would be closed down, so we've deployed counter measures to show we're trying to limit the places where people can gather, [and so they can do it safely].”

—Joseph V. Roszak, Chief Operating Officer, Cleveland Metroparks

The agency has also minimized on-the-ground maintenance services to trash pickup, has explored ways to share materials across facilities in lieu of bulk purchasing—and is redistributing staff, in some cases utilizing “outside the box” strategies, across facilities to accommodate those that are currently short staffed.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we deploy staff in a much different way? How do we stock people in these areas so we can keep these parks open?’” said Roszak.

As an example, he points to the strategy they’ve enacted on their golf courses, which have been allowed to stay open during the pandemic and which Roszak said have provided vital opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“A lot of the staffing was primarily done by older individual [volunteers]. But they are an at-risk population [for COVID-19], and many of them were no longer comfortable. We now have staff from different divisions [helping out],” Roszak stated, adding that this includes everything from accountants to naturalists reassigned from currently closed nature centers, who have learned the rules of golf and are reapplying their skills in new ways.

Clearly Communicating Guidelines and Expectations for Trail Use

Cleveland Metroparks and other trail agencies are looking to signage and social media to help engage communities. Roszak emphasizes Cleveland’s efforts to establish realistic expectations with the community on maintenance and services—and their desire to keep the many new trail users engaged in the long term.

“We have started to utilize our social media platforms to make sure we’re out there talking about this—how usage affects the park … that some of our services will be reduced,” said Roszak. “We’re letting them know that busy parks could equal closed parks … [it’s] a real possibility to limit some of the gathering that can occur, so we need the community to help us. We put the challenge back on them to follow the rules.”

King County Parks recently reopened their parks and trails after a complete closure on March 25 to help support the statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. The park agency, which manages about 300 miles of trails, had recorded huge spikes in trail use—some of which continued even after full closures were in effect, particularly on major commuting corridors.

“As soon as the stay-at-home order was given, people realized how important having access to the outdoors was,” said Gabriel Avila-Mooney, a communications specialist for King County Parks. “We had throngs of people not social distancing, and so for their safety and the safety of our staff, we decided to close the trails and parks down. It was a difficult thing to do.”

Avila-Mooney says that during the closure, which lasted several weeks, they managed to get a few essential maintenance projects done, including some trail repaving, and repairs to facilities from previous flood and storm damage. When they opened back up—social distancing had become more systematic to residents, but the lack of enforcement, as well as the need to promote other tips and safety messages, drove home the importance of resident communication and continued engagement.

To that end, King County Parks has been working as part of a newly formed coalition of other agencies, outdoor industry businesses and nonprofits to ensure consistent messaging across the state regarding best practices—and the importance of every resident doing their part—so trails can remain open.

“We needed common messaging around the idea of people recreating responsibly,” said Joe Inslee, a communications specialist for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “If you look at our website, and the social media of our large local cycling and mountain bike groups, and our hiking advocates, you see the same exact messages about best practices for recreating responsibly.” This information is now available as a toolkit that anyone can take and use to promote these simple tips, including in Spanish.

MORE ABOUT REI'S RECREATE RESPONSIBLY

King County Parks is also using signage, social media and motion graphics to communicate these recreate responsibly messages, including: "leave no trace, plan ahead, and play it safe."

“We encourage them not to stay long and keep it moving—to move through the park and let others enjoy it [during this time of record-high demand]," said Inslee.

Related: Here's the Latest Expert Guidance on Outdoor Activity and COVID-19

An Evolving Landscape for Trail Stewardship

Wissahickon Valley Park Trail System in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Photo by TrailLink user rcpat
Wissahickon Valley Park Trail System in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Photo by TrailLink user rcpat

The impact of volunteerism and stewardship on trails can't be understated—but their importance is ever more clear now as managers must forgo organized trash cleanup, beautification projects and some repair projects in the midst of the pandemic.

In Philadelphia, the 8.5-mile Wissahickon Valley Park Trail—which is managed by the parks and recreation department and is part of the larger 800-mile Circuit Trails system—recorded peak levels of usage in April typically only seen on holiday weekends like the Fourth of July.

Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), said that her 11-person staff—which includes two field people and a volunteer organizer—has focused on two priorities: keeping volunteers, staff and trail users safe; and keeping their trail open in a region where many trail closures were resulting in inequitable access to the outdoors for residents, particularly in underserved communities that already had less green space.

“I think the first thing that really drove the situation home to me and staff: A lot of the open spaces surrounding Philadelphia were being shut down, or trails were open but parking lots were closed. That means if you’re not within walking and biking distance from those places, you have been excluded,” said Tittmann.

“The effect of those closures meant that not only are our usual folks coming earlier in the season, but we’re getting people who would have been going to other closer local trails.”

She continued, “It was a huge challenge. How do you take care of a place that has more people than ever coming to it [but you're now under so many limitations as to what you can do]?”

Currently, the FOW has put most field maintenance activities on hiatus for safety and for social distancing mandates; however, the group has found other unique ways to engage volunteers.

For example, while they are not actively requesting that individuals engage in trash pickup during this time, those who self-elect to do so on the trail are asked to report their hours online so they are recorded both for planning efforts as the FOW anticipates a return to the field, as well as for future fundraising efforts. “Our volunteer service work—that’s our second currency,” she stated. “One of the great ways we demonstrate value to our donors, partners, funders and foundations is our ability to leverage volunteers to maximize our impact.”

Additionally, the group creatively took five years’ worth of surplus T-shirts and put them out in bins for registered volunteers, who made between 400 and 500 masks.

Friends of the Wissahickon also saw a huge opportunity to engage volunteers in developing content for their Virtual Valley web page, which celebrates the beauty, history and culture of the area via stories, videos, virtual events and interactive games.

In anticipation of many Pennsylvania counties moving into the yellow phases of COVID-19 response in which stay-at-home orders and other social restrictions are slowly lifted, the nonprofit has prepared its own cautious rollout plan for stewardship that takes into account volunteer training, safety and reporting so the group can continue to assess the situation day by day.

“I’ve often commented to the FOW staff, “We won’t be a lead indicator on opening by trying to jump in early, we’ll be a trailing indicator, because once we return to the field, we want to be able to stay, and that means keeping safety a top priority,” said Tittmann.

Socially Distant Stewardship

Team RTC cleaning up a section of the Rock Creek Park Trails in Washington, D.C., during Make A Difference Day 2017 | Courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Team RTC cleaning up a section of the Rock Creek Park Trails in Washington, D.C., during Make A Difference Day 2017 | Courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Tittmann said her trained volunteers are eager to get back to work as soon as possible—a sentiment echoed by Rock Creek Conservancy Executive Director Jeanne Braha of the volunteer teams who help maintain and restore the 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park and its 40-mile trail system in Washington, D.C.

“One thing we’re struggling with is that our volunteers are eager to do more,” said Braha. “We [normally] do a lot of invasive plant management—but it’s very difficult to supervise that without getting closer than 6 feet from each other.”

To keep the wheels turning and help people get in some practice in the meantime, the conservancy is encouraging stewardship at home in the form of residential invasive plant management. Via their “Socially-Distant Stewardship” web page, they provide tips and resources for identifying and removing invasive species—such as English Ivy or Garlic Mustard—and replacing them with similar-looking native plants.

Further stewardship is promoted in the form of socially distant, individual park cleanups, where a person can help remove litter while they engage in their regular daily exercise along the trail.

Volunteer ambassadors—including the conservancy’s “Stream Team Leaders” and “Weed Warriors”are helping to spread these messages, in their neighborhoods and beyond; some additional training is also being developed for park volunteers who can engage visitors constructively on trail etiquette and “responsible recreation,” such as proper dog care in the park.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing that there is up to twice as much as the previously normal visitation for this time period,” said Braha. “A lot of that visitation is creating wear and tear. [The messages we want to communicate to our park users include things like] keeping dogs on leashes, scooping pet waste, and staying on official park trails and off social trails. We think that will be helpful in directing their energy.”

#RecreateResponsibly and #SharetheTrail

As the nation slowly plans for reopening, and restrictions begin to lift in many states, trail managers face new challenges with increasing potential for even more surges in trail use and crowding in their facilities. To help guide people as they consider how best to be active outside right now, the outdoor industry has formed a coalition in line with the message King County has been advocating since its parks and trails opened earlier this month: Recreate Responsibly. The message is clear: It’s up to all of us to be conscientious and responsible trail users, taking care not to create hardship on our local facilities, while following public health guidelines and practicing good trail etiquette.

RTC offers these tips to encourage safe and responsible trail use:

  • Know before you go: Check the status of your local trail facilities at TrailLink.com.
  • Plan ahead: Remember to bring water and snacks, and use the restroom in advance, as trail amenities are limited.
  • Keep your distance: Visit the trail only with your immediate household, and keep 6 feet of distance from others.
  • Use Safe Speeds: Slow down to keep yourself and others from being injured. Remember, many people and families are new to the trail.
  • Announce yourself: Let people know you’re passing, and remember to keep right and pass left. If you’re standing still, stand aside.
  • Stay close to home: Visit trails that are within a walk or a bike ride from your home.
  • Leave no trace: Trail maintenance crews are limited, and trail use is surging. It helps if you pack out what you take in.

And as always, be alert and follow the rules. Together, trail users and trail managers can take good care of our trails.

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