Last week, we published an article with recommendations for safe hiking practices in our local forests and parks. Health experts advised that as long as hikers kept a safe, 6-feet distance from others, getting outdoors was not only safe but good medicine.
At that time, national forests and state parks in Oregon were encouraging people to visit and enjoy these treasured recreation areas. But in the days since Gov. Kate Brown issued her "Stay Home" order on Monday, the tone and message of these agencies have changed dramatically.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had originally notified visitors that campgrounds would close April 3, a date that would have allowed spring-breakers to enjoy their week at the coast or in the mountains before hunkering down for whatever came next. But over the weekend, the agency moved up the closure to Monday.
“The order was originally just to close campgrounds. We wanted there to be a nice, smooth, orderly transition for people, rather than putting them out on the road. But since then, things have gotten more intense,” said Chris Havel, spokesperson for Oregon’s state parks.
All state parks will remain closed until further notice. This includes all trails, viewpoints and picnic areas.
This week, other agencies have also shut down recreation, including sport fishing. Notably, national forest offices in Oregon are also reconsidering their policies and several have already closed their public lands to all recreation.
What a difference a weekend makes
Havel cites the intense crowding that occurred over the March 21 weekend at parks like Fort Stevens for the revised timeline.
“On the north coast especially, we were hearing pleas from local communities who feared for their residents’ health and safety,” Havel said. “So we made the decision over the weekend to close our parks system-wide sooner than expected.”
Farther south along the coast, the Siuslaw National Forest was also hearing from local residents concerned that their smaller emergency, health care and law enforcement services could be overwhelmed by crowds of vacationers, urban day-trippers and "displaced people."
“We were also learning that other counties and cities were deciding to close parks, hotels and other tourist facilities,” said Lisa Romano, public affairs staff officer at the Siuslaw National Forest.
The Siuslaw National Forest office also administers the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
Romano acknowledged that the agency itself was having difficulty seeing how it could safely manage a continued influx of visitors under these unprecedented conditions. Like health care systems, national forest districts have a limited supply of personal protective gear for staff whose duties include contact with visitors, as well as collecting trash and cleaning restroom facilities.
While each national forest in our region is enacting their own guidelines, the Siuslaw National Forest and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area are now closed to all visitors and recreation until May 8, or when it is officially deemed safe to return. That means all campgrounds, sand camps, dispersed camping and day use areas will be temporarily closed.
Day use areas include trailheads, visitor centers, off-highway vehicle (OHV) staging areas, viewpoints, boat launches, interpretive sites and picnic areas. Since trailheads are closed, that means no hiking.
“It’s a big bummer,” admits Romano. “I’m a big trail user and it’s not something I like to see. But this is an extraordinary time and it’s not a decision that we made lightly.”
What to expect
People arriving at Oregon state parks and national forest access points will be met with signage, barricades and gates to make it clear areas are closed. But with limited staff, agency personnel can’t be at every access point.
One significant exception to the new rules are Oregon’s 400-miles of beach.
“For now, the decision to close state parks does not affect beaches. But if we continue to see problems with people congregating, that decision will be revisited,” Havel said, citing the governor’s order to restrict non-essential travel.
Havel points out that even though Oregon's beaches are actually part of the state highway system, they are managed by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation.
While access to the beaches through Oregon state parks, as well as state park-managed parking lots are closed, other access points or through your own private property is still permitted.
Havel stresses the new rules are intended to keep everyone safe and that review of the regulations is ongoing.
“Give everyone a break, including the locals and just chill,” he said.
What about enforcement?
Havel described Oregon State Parks’ policy as one of “escalating enforcement.”
“You will see rangers in the parks and if they see you, you will be approached. They will let you know that the park is closed and ask you to leave,” he said. “If you don’t respect that, they will issue a warning. If you don’t respect that, they will call law enforcement. But the hope is that people will leave when requested.”
“We’ll watch and see what happens,” Havel added.
The Siuslaw National Forest acknowledges the situation is fluid and is currently focused on putting closures in place and making sure the public knows about them.
"If we’re finding big congregations of people in places that are closed, we’ll be heading to those places,” Lisa Romano said.
Are there any other options?
Check ahead of time. Find out what restrictions are in place for your local city and county parks. Many municipal and school playgrounds and sports fields are closed or soon will be. It won’t be forever, but for now your backyard or apartment balcony may be the safest bet. In other words, stay home.