Public land managers discuss closure decisions and plans for re-opening

While people nationwide are lamenting the loss of bars, restaurants, concerts, festivals and countless other aspects of community life amid the COVID-19 crisis, for many in Western North Carolina the deepest blow has been the loss of access to hundreds of thousands of acres of cherished public lands.

“We live in a very risk-averse society, and each agency is considering its mission in light of the current context,” said Andrew Bobilya, professor and program director for Western Carolina University’s Parks and Recreation Management Program. “I think they’re watching their peers, so to speak, worldwide and trying to make the best decision. But I think to a certain degree they don’t want to be the ones not being seen as supporting the initiative to reduce the spread of the coronavirus or put people in perceived inappropriate situations of risk.”

N.C. State Parks was the first public agency locally to implement closures in response to the virus, on March 16 announcing that park facilities such as visitor centers and campgrounds would close beginning March 17. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park wasn’t far behind, announcing the immediate closure of its visitor centers March 17. Closure of the visitor center in Asheville on March 18 marked the Blue Ridge Parkway’s initial COVID-related change. On March 22, the National Forests in North Carolina closed all front-country campgrounds.

However, land managers did not see these announcements result in decreased visitation or appropriate social distancing. “What we saw during March was actually increased visitation after other traditional spring break destinations closed, particularly beaches,” said Smokies spokesperson Dana Soehn. “We were actually seeing more people on our crowded trails and along roadways and overlooks.”

Road to reopening…


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