With schools and offices closed throughout the country, many people have flocked to the mountains and remote trailheads. That’s about to change in the Pacific Northwest, however. While hikers were distancing themselves from the cities, they weren’t heeding distancing guidelines between themselves and the rest of the trail crowds. That has lead to all developed Forest Service recreation areas in Washington and Oregon closing to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some areas, such as the Columbia River Gorge, have instituted even stricter closures, shuttering the lands under their jurisdiction wholesale.
“By the weekend of March 21st it became clear that people just didn’t get it,” says Rachel Pawlitz, the Public Information Officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.“Crowds were akin to our peak summer season.” With both trails and employees becoming overwhelmed and health concerns growing, they made the decision to close.
“Even the tourism-dependent communities were concerned about the health risks of crowded trailheads,” Pawlitz adds.
Non-COVID medical concerns played a part, too: With so many hikers out on the trails in early season conditions, SAR groups and sheriff’s offices worried that the number of rescue calls would grow and sap resources, from the few hospital beds in small communities to scarce personal protective equipment used by first responders, medical providers, and SAR personnel.
The crowds that prompted the sweeping closures didn’t just threaten human health; they threatened the environment, too. “Trash and human waste can accumulate quickly while facilities are closed,” Pawlitz explains. With that number of visitors swamping trails and viewpoints, the effect would only be magnified. The build-up of waste is bad enough in busy summer seasons; with no employees emptying trash cans, cleaning bathrooms, or heading out on the trails to close off damaged regions and clean up litter it could get immeasurably worse.
For the sake of both the land and its users, National Forests and Scenic Areas made the decision to shut their gates. Trailheads, viewpoints, picnic areas, boat ramps, visitor centers, and all other developed sites are closed in most Oregon and Washington National Forests. All of them are asking people not to use “creative access points” to get to trails. Apart from the aforementioned dangers to hikers, public lands, and SAR teams, the improvised parking areas that often accompany these access points can become hazards for motorists and emergency services trying to access forest sites.
“Remember, this is temporary,” says Pawlitz. “So help us, everyone, by doing the right thing for right now.” At least for the next few weeks, that means staying off the trails and finding solo walks closer to home. The wilderness will still be there when this is over—let’s try to make sure as many hikers as possible will be there, too.
Update, 4/3/2020: Changed headline to clarify that Forest Service trailheads, not trails, are universally closed across the Pacific Northwest.