When orders to stay at home were implemented in the middle of March, a snowstorm was sweeping through the Western United States. Now, as winter has given way to spring’s melt cycle, some states are taking steps to reopen their economies. For many of us, the question at the top of our minds is when and how we can get back to the mountains.
The short answer is an unsatisfying one: It depends.
In mountainous states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, stay-at-home orders are beginning to ease as governors start to tip-toe into a new phase of life with a pandemic. Meanwhile, a pact among Western states is growing—Nevada and Colorado have joined California, Oregon, and Washington to reopen their economies gradually and cautiously, without a set timeline. On Twitter, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak said the decision on how and when to reopen will follow health outcomes and science, not politics. Our ability to return to the mountains will follow the leadership of regional authorities.
In the meantime, the guidelines for going outside that we developed with our partners in the Outdoor Alliance remain relevant: The health of others is the priority. Choose outdoor activities that are safe, cautious, and close to home. Keep it chill. And let’s all be good stewards of public lands—land management agencies need our support as much as ever.
Public lands can put Americans to work
There’s another aspect to this next phase of the pandemic: the economy. We’ve put a lot of time and effort over the last few years to help build the case that outdoor recreation and public lands are a huge economic driver. A quick review: Outdoor recreation represents 2.2 percent of the gross domestic product—an economic impact that adds up to almost $800 billion annually. That includes 5.2 million jobs. Along with tourism, the outdoor recreation economy has been among the hardest-hit sectors during the stay-at-home phase of this crisis. Furthermore, as demand for public lands and open spaces has skyrocketed, the dire state of recreation infrastructure and the chronic underfunding of our land management agencies, while nothing new, is more glaring than ever. We must get serious about our investment in this sector.
Even in normal times, land managers don’t have the funds or the staff or the support to manage spiking demand for recreation. One project manager for a land management agency in California said last year that the money allocated to his department barely covers the cost for one person with a shovel and a truck to maintain hundreds of miles of trails in a place that sees millions of visitors a year. Add in a pandemic, with government orders to stay at home, and visitation to our public parks, beaches, local trailheads surged. If land managers can hardly keep the bathrooms clean, how can we expect them to have the staffing and support to manage social distancing at the trailhead? Therein lies a problem with a solution. Investing in public lands will not only protect these places and make them better prepared to handle the ever-growing visitation numbers, it will also put people to work. And as the unemployment rate soars past 20 percent, jobs are what our economy needs right now.
The Great American Outdoors Act
The Great American Outdoors Act is a partial stopgap solution that will give land managers funds to do things like build and maintain trails, update and install signage at trailheads and Wilderness boundaries, to repair bathrooms and upgrade campsite facilities, and create new parks or protect existing green spaces. The Act guarantees permanent and full funding of $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to expand access to public lands and outdoor spaces. The Act also gives agencies like the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management $1.9 billion annually to address more than $25 billion worth of infrastructure backlogs.
Momentum for the Great American Outdoors Act was building at the beginning of March, but Congress was right to pivot toward their response to the novel coronavirus. We need to ask Congress to pick the Great American Outdoors Act back up and bring it to the floor.
A Snow Ranger Program
Another idea for economic stimulus? Let’s take a cue from the Civilian Conservation Corps that emerged after the Great Depression and start a federal program to hire more people who can help manage and support outdoor recreation. In addition to CCC-style projects like trail construction and maintenance, this could include managing the growing world of backcountry winter recreation.
One program we saw work this past winter was a partnership between the Colorado Mountain Club and the U.S. Forest Service at the Ouray Ranger District. Two snow rangers, hired by the Colorado Mountain Club, worked from December to March, logging more than 700 hours of on-the-ground field work. They tracked the different types of winter recreation—showing that backcountry skiers outnumbered snowmobilers 10 to 1. They also supported avalanche education, facilitated road closures for snow safety mitigation, installed signage to mark Wilderness boundaries, and stationed at trailheads to help educate recreationists about snow and avalanche conditions, proper gear, safety protocol and ethics. This program was successful not only for supporting the agency with groundwork, but because it helped bridge communication with users, too. Imagine if agencies had the resources to get friendly, uniformed rangers at trailheads and staging areas to help people navigate closures and conflicting recreation guidelines, and to facilitate physical distancing.
Meanwhile, as Congress and the administration work their way slowly toward economic stimulus packages, we’re compiling a list of “shovel-ready” projects that could be ready to go as soon as our government is ready to invest.
You can help. Let’s call on Congress to include public lands in the stimulus as America recovers from the pandemic. Ask your representatives to support the Great American Outdoors Act and invest in public lands.