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Jeff Ruch

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Social Distancing to Curb COVID-19 and National Park Overcrowding

Donald Trump wanted to pretend that the COVID pandemic could be ignored and would just magically go away, even as it has now taken more American lives than were lost in World War II. Part of this façade of normalcy was pressuring national parks, already struggling with pre-pandemic overcrowding, to remain wide open.

That has all changed. President Biden has declared war on the pandemic with an “all-hands-on” approach.

Among his first day blitz of 17 Executive Orders was one entitled “Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing.” That order requires “compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures by: on-duty or on-site Federal employees; on-site Federal contractors; and all persons in Federal buildings or on Federal lands.

Since national parks are federal lands, this order means all employees – and visitors – to parks and other federal lands must wear masks and practice social distancing. As a result, the National Park Service (NPS) is, for the first time, under a direct presidential order to do something that had become anathema to them – manage crowds to thin out throngs of visitors.

As Biden’s order went into “immediate” effect, some parks are scrambling to comply.

Yellowstone Geyser, Old FaithfulAt Yellowstone, this past May, Superintendent Cam Sholly declared “Yellowstone will not be actively telling citizens to spread out and put masks on, especially outdoors” and “The NPS is not going to be the social distancing police.”

This week, however, Sholley has a different message: “Social distancing will be maintained, and appropriate signage will be posted on all facilities.”

Things are different over at Rocky Mountain, the park with the third highest level of visitors and which has broken annual visitation records six times since 2012. As it reopened at the end of May, Rocky Mountain adopted a reservation or timed-entry system to prevent overcrowding. Yet, on the same day Biden signed his EO on masks and social distancing, Rocky Mountain announced it would abandon its reservation system altogether, with no replacement on the horizon.

Some confusion is inevitable, as the Biden order does not spell out specifics. And, without enacted rules, parks have no legal basis to apply enforcement measures, such as fines, to resistant mask-less clusters.

Under the Biden order, these details and formal policies are supposed be finalized and made uniform government-wide through a “Safer Federal Workforce Task Force” made up of agency heads. But the Park Service has not had a confirmed director for more than four years and suffers not just a void in its leadership ranks but a Grand Canyon-like chasm.

In the early years of its second century (beginning in 2016), the Park Service faces an array of daunting new challenges but has also ignored decades-old statutory mandates, such as its obligation to adopt plans to prevent ruinous overcrowding from damaging park resources and the visitor experience. This is a responsibility it has largely shirked – but now must finally confront through the prism of a pandemic.

Moving forward, these as yet unidentified NPS leaders must grapple with these new factors but should do so with an eye toward reclaiming the Park Service’s original mission.

Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 22 years as the Executive Director of PEER.

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