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Summertime Visitors Swarm State Parks and Budgets

Summertime Visitors Swarm State Parks and Budgets
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Beachgoers fill Grand Haven State Park and City Beach in Michigan in July. State parks all over the country have seen record numbers of visitors this summer, as people look for ways to safely get out of their homes for some fun.
Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP

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CORBETT, Ore. — The sounds floating down the beach at Rooster Rock State Park were unmistakable, and after months of social distancing, felt almost illicit. The thump of music. The “woo-hoo!” of a crowd.

Was that ... a party?

It was. Not just any party, but a socially distanced drag show, held outdoors at what may be one of the few state parks in America with an official clothing-optional beach.

Alexis Campbell Starr, a longtime Portland, Oregon, drag performer, knew that many fellow entertainers had seen their income dry up during the pandemic, as clubs closed or restricted access. So she decided it was time for drag queens to return to the stage, even if it was a hot, sandy one at a riverfront state park 25 miles east of the city. Fans — and random beachgoers — got a socially distanced live performance.

“We were like, ‘Let's just put on a show out there,’” Campbell Starr said. “We’ll bring some equipment, we'll take it out. We’ll make sure people are spaced out, spaced apart from each other. And let’s just shock the hell out of the beach.”

The sanctioned nudity at Oregon's Rooster Rock and the novelty of an outdoor drag show are no doubt anomalies among state park systems in America. But the crowded parking lot on a hot August day was not. State parks all over the country have seen record numbers of visitors this summer, as people look for ways to safely get out of their homes for some fun.

“This is not going to come as a surprise to anybody, but anything that has well-developed access to a river, a stream or a lake has been running much busier than normal,” said Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

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From neighborhood parks to national parks, there's been a premium on open spaces where people can recreate safely while maintaining distance from those outside of their immediate household or their quarantine bubble. The crowds demonstrate just how desperate people are for the solace of open space after being told to stay inside. Still, their presence requires extra staff to clean facilities and pick up the excess trash visitors leave behind at a time of already strained state resources and budgets.

Several states, including New Mexico, banned out-of-state residents at their parks. As COVID-19 cases ballooned in neighboring Arizona and Texas, New Mexico decided to close all campgrounds this summer and barred out-of-state visitors from state parks, said Susan Torres, a spokesperson for the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. And Ute Lake State Park closed to visitors for two weeks in August after several employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is a balance we were trying to find and are still trying to find, where we want people to still be healthy and go outside,” Torres said. “But we really wanted to make sure that people weren't traveling. We wanted to make sure that people weren't spreading anything in the communities, and we really wanted to make sure we were protecting those communities.”

In Tennessee, the state parks office compiled a list of five lesser known parks for people to visit to avoid crowds at some of the most popular destinations. Things got so crowded in the spring that park rangers were praying for a rainy weekend, one park ranger at Harpeth River State Park told the Tennessean newspaper.

For visitors contemplating Pennsylvania's 121 state parks, there's a warning on the state parks website: “Some state parks are experiencing overcrowding which is causing visitors to be turned away. Be prepared to find alternate locations for recreation.” State park use in Pennsylvania in June skyrocketed to 6.6 million visitors, compared with 5.6 million the previous year, WHYY reported. In neighboring New Jersey, officials in August closed two state parks to divert workers to busier parks overwhelmed by visitors. 

Wyoming's 12 state parks closed to out-of-state visitors early in the pandemic but reopened to everyone this summer. By the Fourth of July weekend, all state park campsites were booked at capacity.

“Having full state parks is a great problem to have,” said the state's parks director, Darin Westby. “However, it can come with challenges, especially during this pandemic.”

Among them: urging visitors to comply with local regulations about masks and social distancing. An anonymous respondent to a survey by the National Recreation and Park Association shared another common complaint: “As we slowly reopen certain facilities, enforcing mask regulations is a big challenge for staff. It is an ongoing, tireless and thankless task and many staff members are not skilled at handling it in a non-confrontational manner.”

Oregon also discouraged out-of-state visitors from already crowded campgrounds — an estimated 45% of state campground visitors each year are from outside of the state. Oregon on Aug. 10, started charging non-residents extra to camp at state parks. RV camping went from $33 to $42 a night. Tent camping fees rose from $19 to $23 a night for out-of-staters. The surcharge is aimed at deterring long-distance travel so that Oregonians have space to recreate closer to home, Havel said.

“In the here and now, you ought to ask yourself: Is there a way for me to get what I need from outdoor recreation, closer to home?” Havel said. “If you live out of state, there may be a place closer to where you live that you can enjoy.”

If the fee doesn't discourage visitors from elsewhere, it will at least bring in an estimated $500,000 extra in operating money for the state agency. In Oregon, state parks are funded mostly with user fees, parking passes and lottery receipts, all of which plummeted during the pandemic. The state park system now has a $22 million budget shortfall going into 2021.

And the shortfall has a cascading effect: There are more people than ever at parks, but the state has the money to hire only half its seasonal parks workforce this year. That means overflowing parking lots and trash bins, and no one to clean them up or enforce parking rules.

Overcrowding isn't limited to state parks. National parks and federal public lands also have seen an influx of visitors this year. At Oregon's Crater Lake National Park, staffing shortages have made it difficult for rangers to manage crowds, The Bulletin reported; dorms that normally would house summer employees can't operate because of social distancing rules.

In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation, which borders Glacier National Park, closed one entrance of the park to keep visitors from the reservation. The coronavirus has been especially deadly for Indigenous people in Montana. Native Americans make up just under 7% of the state's population but represent about a third of Montana's 104 COVID-19 deaths.  

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State parks have faced other pressures this summer unrelated to the pandemic, particularly in the West. Fires sparked by lightning burned through California's beloved Big Basin Redwood State Park near Santa Cruz, destroying the headquarters and scorching many redwoods, including 1,800-year-old trees that stretch 300 feet into the sky. The park, which dates to 1902, was the first in the California state system, and its creation helped lead the way for the preservation of additional coastal redwoods.

Before the pandemic, nearly half a million people visited Big Basin annually. As it reopened in late June, Big Basin's staff warned potential visitors that the park had been filling to capacity on weekends and holidays. Parking wasn't guaranteed, and visitors could be turned away. "Traffic on the winding mountain roads can be heavy at times and visitors can expect long delays while making their way to Park Headquarters," the park cautioned.

In Oregon, where most schools don't start until early September, crowds persist anywhere there's water. Late in August, the state issued a warning to people visiting some of the more popular beaches along the northern coast, which offer free parking at day-use areas. (Rooster Rock charges $5 per car.) The state installed more than a dozen new advisory and "No Parking" signs along U.S. 101, the two-lane highway that hugs the coast. They also began ticketing — and in some cases, towing — cars parked unsafely.

The state's parks director, Lisa Sumption, begged day-trippers to take their trash home with them: “If you love the coast,” she said, “show it.”   

At Rooster Rock, a small crowd of about 100 people watching the drag show formed an expansive circle on the wide, sandy beach along the Columbia River. Music blasted from portable speakers. Performers, many of whom wore clear plastic face shields, danced in the middle. One got so overheated during Laura Branigan's “Gloria” that as the song ended, she ran straight into the water. It was “hilarious,” Campbell Starr said, and one of the benefits of performing on public lands.

“Drag queens are meant to brighten people's days, to make people happy and have fun,” Campbell Starr said. “When we were walking up, there was a little girl on the beach and she saw the three of us walking towards her. She was like, ‘Oh my God, RuPaul's Drag Race is here.’ No, not quite. But something like it. The closest thing you get to it.”

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Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.

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