Last week, the U.S. Forest Service closed scores of roads, trails and campsites in the Pisgah National Forest. A day later, the National Park Service closed most of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina.
Earlier in the pandemic, the managers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dupont State Forest and Conserving Carolina closed trails. And suddenly, perhaps the singular trait that made Western North Carolina so enviable for maintaining social distance, fitness and sanity during the pandemic—the region’s trail systems—seemed to have been choked off from the public.
“I fully support closing a certain area down if there’s an issue in that particular area,” said Ken Wilson, an occasional hiker who lives in Mills River. “But they’re killing a gnat with a hammer.”
Wilson estimates he hiked about once or twice every week before the pandemic, and he’d hoped to do more of it while otherwise sheltering at home. Wilson said he was surprised and frustrated by the list of trails among the Pisgah closures.
“The trails that we’re on have very few people on them, so I guess I didn’t understand it,” he said. “You know, there are a few campers scattered out, there are some mountain bikers, a few hikers, but there’s never what I would say a crowded trail at all.”
But trail managers and even many hikers say they’ve seen polluted trails and garbage left at the foot of locked trash receptacles. They’ve also seen overrun parking areas and clusters of hikers forced to pass one another along narrow trails.
Managers with Conserving Carolina, a nonprofit managing a number of trails in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, recorded five times the number of cars and hikers than the trails see even during peak holidays. Peter Barr, the trails director for Conserving Carolina, called the decision to close the trails the most emotionally fraught of his career.
“This is the time we needed nature and outdoor spaces to play and rejuvenate and find solace more than ever. We thought this is actually our time to shine,” he said. “Such dramatic increase in usage really removed the ability for users to self-regulate and socially distance themselves. We knew the writing was on the wall that we were in an unsustainable situation.”
Leesa Brandon is a public information officer, based in Asheville, with the National Park Service. She said last week’s closures along the parkway came after following cues from county, state and federal officials and observations in the field over the past month.
“We’ve been seeing through the eyes of park staff in the field, and some reports coming back to us from park users, people with really great and responsible recreational habits of social distancing in this time,” she said. “But more frequently, especially in more popular areas of the park, we’ve been hearing reports of poor social distancing and congregating crowds of people that looked not to be safe for people, which is our top priority, but also for the resource, ultimately.”
Kim Rosselle, who has lived in Brevard for more than 20 years, is a recreational hiker who sympathizes with the closures.
“As picnic areas were closed and restrooms were closed, people just started dumping their trash and they just started using the restroom in bad places and they were just not good stewards of the land,” she said. “(The closures are) gonna be more positives for our trails down here that have been bombarded by people, yeah. It’s gonna give these trails a break.”
There are reports that trail and forest managers elsewhere in the country are trying to stagger visitors through permitting for specific dates and allowing parking based on the odd-even numbers on vehicle license plates. Peter Barr of Conserving Carolina said the staffing doesn’t exist here to manage or enforce such measures. Barr also acknowledges that the trail closures already put into place have likely funneled more foot and auto traffic onto the areas that remain open.
“To me, it makes the case for the desperate need for more public access points to give the opportunity in the future, and not just during a pandemic, to disperse that use,” Barr said. “I’m definitely a proponent for all of these region’s trails to be open as soon as they can safely do so, but in a way that those who maintain them can also handle it on that end.”
“We want to all come out of this healthy,” Brandon said. “And (we want to) provide a park that’s there for Asheville in the next few months, the next years and the next generations.”