Colorado's most recent public-health order put in place to combat COVID-19 is called "Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors." But even before this edict went into effect, Governor Jared Polis was actively encouraging residents to take advantage of the state's spectacular network of hiking and biking trails — and to step off paths in order to create physical distance and stay at least six feet away from those who might be approaching.
Turns out this last piece of advice was a little problematic. Colorado's trails were mobbed after the first stay-at-home order was imposed in late March, and officials such as Matt Robbins, community connections manager at Jefferson County Open Space, confirm that open-space usage has continued to be well above average since restrictions were lifted. But best safety practices related to the virus have resulted in unintended environmental consequences.
"We've definitely seen the challenge of people trying to social distance by stepping off the trails," Robbins says. "A lot of the trails at parks are narrow, anywhere between eighteen and 36 inches, and most of them are natural surfaces. And we've seen some of those trails widened by six feet because of the sheer volume."
Robbins notes that "people step off, but they continue in an arc motion, walking through vegetation. Then the next person does the same — and because of that, we've seen a really significant amount of damage to the natural resources. In the spring, we really count on those shrubs and grasses to sustain through the hot summer months. But a lot of those were trampled, and we don't know if and how they're going to come back.
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"We've been encountering almost a new visitor type" since the start of the pandemic," Robbins adds. "They're the ones who aren't necessarily prepared. They're not wearing proper footwear, they don't have water or sunscreen, and if they're riding a bike, they may have a Bluetooth speaker on it. They're not the typical folks we're used to coming out."
Many of these individuals "aren't packing out," he continues. "We're seeing a lot of debris: fast-food bags, even dog waste in bags, where people have picked it up, but then they leave the bag. That might be because all of our mountain parks have bear-proof trash cans with a handle you have to pull to open. Perhaps there's a concern about touching the handle — so they toss the debris on the side. I'm sure they're not doing it with malice, but they're not thinking about the total impact on the park."
To deal with issues like these, Jeffco rangers and other personnel have focused on education efforts related to proper trail etiquette, says Robbins, who adds that he thinks it's great that more and more people are experiencing the vast, great outdoors that Polis touts. He just wants those who venture into these areas to be more thoughtful about their actions regarding the resources, as well as fellow hikers and bikers.
"We don't know what the new normal is going to be," he acknowledges, "but we've all been pent up for a long time. So the bottom line is to be kind to one another and to Mother Nature. At the end of the day, we're going to get through this — and it's going to be good."