Pleasantville, NY– Groups of masked people walk through the damp brush, talking among themselves, taking pictures, even occasionally stopping to watch a dauntless turkey strut by. Hundreds of millions of Americans have experienced a scene like this, perhaps even you yourself have visited a nearby sanctuary or forest to experience a connection with the natural world.
In periods of great distress, people seek comfort and solace in nature. In this time like no other, park visitation has increased exponentially. This sudden boom in park traffic has led to concerns about park conditions as well as an increase in the number of protected areas.
The causes for this major increase in the number of public park visitors are no mystery. A combination of COVID-19 precautions and outdoor trends have almost doubled the number of visitors in certain parks. In urban areas, meeting CDC recommendations for outdoor gatherings can be difficult with limited outdoor space. Public parks reporting an increase in visitors often found that socially distant meetups were one of the leading causes. Other COVID-19 precautions like remote working may also have affected the number of park-goers in 2020 and early 2021.
Many doctors, as well as prominent medical sites, recommend walking in and observing nature to alleviate virus stress and find ways to exercise. Even just disconnecting from screens and experiencing the outdoors has been found to have major positive mental health effects. Remote work has also led to another factor in this surge, new pets. Millions of families have adopted new pets to cope with their increase in time at home to the point where many dog shelters have run out of pets to adopt. These new pets have forced many people to visit more outdoor areas. These combined factors have led to record-breaking visitation, forcing many smaller parks to shut down temporarily and reevaluate their COVID-19 safety precautions. Anne Swaim, the executive director of the Saw Mill River Audubon (SMRA), a local organization which runs several sanctuaries, estimates that they have received more than five times their usual traffic over the pandemic. Luckily, they have been able to continue operating. Other groups, like the Massachusetts Audubon, have seen massive cuts and have been forced to reorganize their management structure and reduce the number of programs they run.
While the increase in sanctuary traffic is apparent to most visitors, it can be difficult for park management to measure due to difficulties in data collection. In large preserves, especially mountain ranges, the key method of information gathering is through trail registers, a type of ledger in which hikers give their name, the number of people in their party, and the time at which they entered the trail system. Due to concerns about virus infection through surfaces, many people avoided using these tools since they involve sharing writing utensils. This has skewed data at large parks like the Adirondacks and forced park staff to use other, less effective methods of counting walkers like counting cars and having websites to sign in hikers. Despite this, what information has been obtained shows the large influx of people seen at most wildlife preserves.
This new flood of hikers raises several questions not only about how the conditions of parks are affected, but also the influence on the wildlife inside them. Swaim tells how the SMRA has had to “repair some trails” due to the greater amount of foot traffic. They have also had difficulty with parking, as it often fills up in their more popular sanctuaries. This can lead to a lot of problems at preserves, and make it difficult for hikers to get in at certain times of the day. To cope with these issues, some parks like Duke Forest in North Carolina have released impact statements detailing how conditions have changed. Duke Forest describes how “the sheer volume and spatial breadth [of hikers] has never been greater” and how they “have noted a dramatic increase in unauthorized recreational activities and associated negative impacts.” Despite the adverse effects on the quality of certain trails and facilities, there is little evidence so far of impacts on wildlife. Some increases in littering and graffiti have been reported, as can be expected, but due to the nature of wildlife trails, there is very little specific evidence of organisms or natural systems being disturbed.
Despite few proven effects on wildlife, the positive impacts of this popular new hobby are well-documented. A growing field called ecotherapy examines the effects of visiting nature on one’s mental health. While it’s not exactly clear how, it has been proven that short excursions outdoors can perform wonders for one’s mental health and has led some doctors to prescribe time in parks as a natural remedy for conditions like depression. Many people describe how after just a short walk in a nearby forest they feel calmer and more ready to get back to their lives. Swaim describes how it is “definitely a mental health break” and “good for the mind and the spirit.”
Parks themselves are also seeing some positive effects of their rise in popularity. The SMRA has seen a rise in membership as well as more generous donors. Numerous park systems have received more people willing to volunteer and help repair trails than ever before. Many sanctuaries give visitors the opportunity to sign up to walk trails on a regular basis to prevent them from falling into disrepair. The combined efforts of many volunteers have helped to keep parks running despite difficulties caused by the pandemic.
While there may be more people than usual, and some trails may be overtrodden, now is the perfect time to visit the outdoors. Sign up to walk trails, take time to breathe in, unplug from your screens, exercise your new pug, release pandemic stress, or just experience the outdoors.