by Katherine Martinko: Social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t go for a solitary hike in the wilderness…
The National Park Service in the United States has temporarily waived entry fees to make it easier for people to get outside during this challenging time of the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said, “Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”
This is a smart and compassionate move on the part of the National Park Service. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t get outside to enjoy nature, to hike, to have an outdoor meal or simply get out of the house, all while practicing social distancing. Nobody needs to touch or talk, but one’s spirit can be greatly uplifted by moving around in nature and sunshine, and that has value.
Not everyone supports the move. Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s Parks, argued that people “gathering at national parks is irresponsible to the visiting public and employees” [because] these parks “welcome visitors from around the world and many National Park Service employees interact with members of the public daily.”
We need parks more than ever.
I disagree with Francis for a few reasons. First, I don’t think of national parks as gathering places for crowds; they’re conducive to more solitary activities, such as hiking, and if additional services such as interpretation centres and guided tours are closed, that reduces the likelihood of contact even further. As for employees interacting with members of the public, if there are no entry fees or dashboard tickets needing to be purchased, I see little reason for a visitor to communicate with a staff member, apart from emergencies. Maps can be set out at the entrance.
As fellow TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter pointed out earlier this week, parks both urban and rural are just what we need right now. He quotes architectural critic Alex Bozicovic, who said, “For the millions of us who live in cities and lack a lush backyard, green space is something we’ll have to seek out – in order to stay healthy, in body and in spirit. Parks are lungs for the city, and they’re medicine for us.” The city of Paris has made an unfortunate decision to shut down its parks at a time when they’re needed more than ever.
Outdoor exploration is what’s keeping my own family sane in this strange time when we have nowhere else to go. I take my children outside every afternoon for 1-2 hours and we explore nearby trails, forests, beaches, and streams. We come home tired and exhilarated, feeling as though the day was a success.
Being outside does not mean you have to be near other people, especially if you avoid playgrounds; it can be a solitary activity, limited to immediate family only, and national parks are a wonderful way to do this. I hope the national parks remain open throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with appropriate measures taken to eliminate contact between individuals, because we need them. As John Muir said so perfectly, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” Right now, national parks can be our breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively.