Guest column: Back to the wild, in a whole new outdoor recreation world

  • Wednesday, May 13, 2020 1:30am
  • Opinion

Exploring the outdoors feeds our souls and helps keep us healthy, when done responsibly. Yet, as we begin to once again enjoy these benefits, we must keep the well-being of all of us in mind.

For several weeks, Washington residents have put protecting their families and communities above enjoying our natural landscapes. As leaders in Washington’s outdoor recreation community, we want to say thank you for this sacrifice. Fortunately, as Washington’s state-managed lands, including parks, forests, natural and wildlife areas, begin to reopen for day use, we can once more enjoy the activities and environments we love.

Reopening comes with responsibility, however. We know COVID-19 is still here, and we should be recreating differently if we want to be safe and keep these areas open for us all to enjoy.

Regardless of how you spend time outdoors, you have a role to play. Lead by example – minimize the risks you take and the risks you pose to others.

It’s not, of course, the outdoors itself that spreads COVID-19. It’s the people, like us, who live in this state because we love the outdoors. With so many of us having been cooped up for weeks, the opportunity to explore our state’s natural areas is a compelling draw. And yes, we can do that safely — by taking responsibility for our actions.

To lead by example, each of us should be willing to have a backup plan when a site is crowded. Each of us should come prepared with face coverings for the unexpected situation when maintaining 6 feet of physical distance from others becomes impossible.

Each of us should pack toilet paper and the essentials for frequent hand-washing or sanitizing. Each of us should exercise the self-control to stay home when we have even an inkling that we might be sick, or if we believe we may have been exposed to COVID-19.

For many of us, enjoying the outdoors means spending time with family and friends. During this time of reopening, we suggest that you enjoy the outdoors with only people from your household. If you do meet others, travel separately, stay 6 feet apart, bring your own gear, and disinfect shared surfaces frequently. But also remember that the best way to value your friends and family is to protect each other. Consider waiting to embark on that shared trip.

Please take care in selecting your destination. We suggest sites close to home. This could reduce the chance that COVID-19 could spread to unimpacted communities, or accidentally bringing it back to your community. Now is the perfect time to discover your local recreation sites. With some research, you may also be able to find less used trails, waters and recreation areas that are off the beaten path and less likely to attract crowds.

Check before lighting a campfire, as the COVID situation has increased firefighting complexity and some burns bans are already in place.

Enjoy day trips, as all camping on state lands is still closed. Fill your cooler and gas tank before leaving your neighborhood, and plan to be back home before needing more supplies.

And, before heading out, it’s best to confirm that your intended destination is open. Many sites, whether local, tribal, or federal, particularly those where maintaining proper physical distancing could be difficult, remain closed. Please respect these closures.

Finally, if you pack it in, pack it out. Trash cans may be available – but don’t use them. If you are able, take that trash home with you. With more visitors and fewer maintenance staff, we’re asking you to lead by example here too. Restrooms offer a special challenge; they may not currently be open or meet typical cleanliness levels due to high use and limited staff. There are many options for safely managing your own human waste and, if necessary, you should be prepared to do so. Piles of garbage, or worse, may put that site in jeopardy of being shut down, not because of COVID-19, but for unsanitary conditions. Nobody wants that.

If you, we, and all of us, act as leaders in our communities and embrace these changes to recreating in the outdoors, we begin to create the norms that can ensure safe and ongoing access to public lands and outdoor recreation for everyone.

It’s a whole new world out there, so please, Washington, practice responsible recreation as you go back to the wild.

Kelly Susewind, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hilary Franz, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Don Hoch, Washington State Parks

Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

Jason Ridlon, Back Country Horsemen

Mark Pidgeon, Hunters Heritage Council

Marie Neumiller and Pete Butler, Inland Northwest Wildlife Council

Bill Essman, Kittitas County Field & Stream Club

James DeSalvo, Methow Trails

Jon Hoekstra, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust

Tom Vogl, The Mountaineers

Rachel Voss, Mule Deer Foundation

Russell McDonald, National Wild Turkey Federation

Liz Hamilton, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association

Phil Anderson, Pacific Fishery Management Council

Joe Sambataro, Access Fund and Washington Climbers Coalition

Jill Simmons, Washington Trails Association

Christine Mahler, Washington Wildlife & Recreation Coalition

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