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Social Distancing with Outdoor Recreation on Public Land

Where open, public lands can help us through the COVID-19 lockdown only if we practice social distancing

  • Drew YoungeDyke
  • Mar 26, 2020

Never before has the importance of our public lands been so apparent. While our country endures unprecedented challenges from COVID-19, we’re turning to our public lands as places to breathe fresh air and get out of the house, to stay healthy while maintaining social distance when gyms are closed, to access public waters and cast a line to relieve stress, and to hunt wild game in a public forest when the shelves of the grocery store are empty. This can only continue, though, if we keep our social distance while using public lands, where public lands are still open.

On the day that our National Wildlife Federation offices closed to protect our staff and help slow the spread of COVID-19, but before my son’s day care announced the same, I went to a nearby Land and Water Conservation Fund-funded state recreation area with a rifle more than a century old and a box of nonlead copper .22LR rounds. Watching and reading about the pandemic built up some stress in me that I needed to relieve through time in the woods, and Michigan's squirrel season is open through the end of March. It was a relatively warm day compared to the days before and after, but I didn’t account for how windy it was. Few squirrels were scurrying about, preferring the sanctuary of their nests and hollow trees, as I saw one gray squirrel climb into before I could get a shot. The squirrels were practicing their own brand of social distancing, it seemed: from me.

I hunted a long oak ridge along a series of trail segments and deer paths. I saw two squirrels early on but didn’t get a shot. Around midday the sun came out and the wind died down. A ground squirrel scampered on a log and I edged around a tree for a shot at about 25 yards. It stood, I took aim through the open sights of my Marlin Model 1892 .22LR lever action rifle, and the copper bullet was accurate. It was the only squirrel in my game bag that day, but I took it home, skinned it, fried it in a cast iron skillet, shredded the meat from the bone and made tacos for a late lunch. I saved the tail and tied it into a variation of the “Squirrel and Herl Bugger” streamer for fly-fishing for trout and smallmouth bass.

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean staying inside; the only other people I saw in the woods were a pair of mountain bikers and I gave them more than six feet of space to pass on the trail. And instead of depleting my supply of ground turkey for a taco lunch, I extended it by a day through hunting for small game on our public lands. One more day before I have to go to the grocery store. One more day I can stay out of public spaces and help slow the spread of this COVID-19 pandemic, one more day I can make sure I don’t bring it home to my family.

Nonlead squirrel hunter

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently issued a “shelter in place” order for our state, but this includes an exception for safe and responsible outdoor recreation that maintains social distance.

“Gov. Whitmer’s executive order requires people to follow the CDC guidelines and stay at least six feet away from other people when outside of their own households, to the greatest extent possible,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger said in a press release. “We want residents to use and enjoy our public outdoor spaces, but we ask them to do so responsibly and safely, whether in a forest, on a trail or in a parking lot.

“If it becomes evident that people are not practicing effective social distancing while visiting these state-managed resources, we will close them to protect the health of our visitors and our staff.”

The City of Ann Arbor, where I live, has an extensive parks and natural areas system. While my family has been working from and staying at home for a couple weeks now, I have been taking my toddler son on backpack carrier hikes in the city nature area in my neighborhood almost every day. It’s fresh air for him and me, and with his day care closed it allows him time outside his living room play area to experience all the benefits of time in nature for his developing mind, hear the birds, watch the mallards on the pond, and see deer and squirrels.

The city issued orders affecting activities on its parks and natural areas after Gov. Whitmer’s order, stating “usage of city parks and natural areas is limited to only activities that do not involve direct contact with others, such as walking, hiking, running, and cycling, will be permitted. Please make sure while engaged in any of these activities to remain at least six feet from others who do not live with you in your household. And if you are sick, please do not visit the parks until you are well.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we engage with each other at home, in our communities, and the wider world, but it also highlighted the critical role our public lands and outdoor spaces play in our lives. Public lands can be a place to keep our bodies and minds healthy while social distancing, teach our children about nature, and hunt and fish wild game, fish, and forage. They can provide this to us both now when we need it most during this pandemic, and when we emerge from it for current and future generations.

Public land nonlead squirrel tacos

This can only continue, though, if we keep our social distance while using public lands. In some states, outdoor recreation on public lands is not even an option. Illinois closed its state lands altogether and Washington closed down all fishing temporarily due to overcrowded docks. Even where public lands are open, crowding popular spots and trails risks spreading COVID-19. Regardless of the hashtag you use, it’s not social distancing if you’re not actually keeping your distance.

If public lands remain open where you live, please observe CDC and state agency guidelines and practice responsible social distancing if you use them. Your state may have its own rules to follow, but here are some additional things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of using our public lands during this pandemic:

  • Check your state government and relevant state or federal agency website for the latest information on lockdown orders and public land, hunting and fishing closures.
  • If you’re sick or exhibiting symptoms, stay home.
  • Don't group together with anyone outside your household family unit and maintain social distance — at least six feet — between you and anyone else you encounter; preferably more.
  • Avoid common areas, crowded trails, trailheads, and boat launches, and commonly touched surfaces.
  • Keep your outing short, avoid public restroom facilities and outhouses, and practice “Leave No Trace” if you absolutely must go to the bathroom outside.
  • Stay local; go to the local nature area or public land near you. Don't drive to another part of the state where you’ll need to stop for gas or food, or where you could spread COVID-19 to the communities where you would need to travel.
  • Don't take any unnecessary risks: our medical facilities have their hands full without additional preventable injuries.
  • Respect and follow public land closures in your state, even if you disagree with them.
  • If there’s even a doubt that you can maintain safe social distancing, even if public lands are open, stay home.

I recognize that my ability to continue some public land outdoor recreation during this COVID-19 pandemic is dependent on the state, community, and location where I live. Some communities may lack the same access to nearby, uncrowded, and open public land. The rules about what we can do - and where - are changing daily, and tomorrow even these limited outdoor recreation opportunities may be closed here, just as they are in other parts of the country. (Next week I’ll share ideas on what hunters and anglers can do to stay productive from home). 

Slowing the spread of this pandemic is about protecting our most vulnerable family members and neighbors, and that should be our highest priority. Our public lands can help us get through the tough times we must endure to protect our families and neighbors, though, if we observe safe social distancing practices while using them.

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