Idaho is known for its wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities, from water sports to hiking and camping, and the closures of restaurants, bars, and other hospitality services as a result of COVID-19 has left Idahoans with few choices other than to take a more outdoorsy approach to summer fun. Boiseans have easy access to two of Idaho’s 23 state parks, Lucky Peak and Eagle Island, and the parks are beginning to feel the added strain, according to Idaho Parks and Recreation Public Information Officer Craig Quintana.
“We have never seen such a dramatic increase in day use at these parks,” Quintana said.
“Particularly from earlier in the spring, Eagle Island has seen an increase in attendance.”
Nearly all of Idaho’s 23 state parks have felt the repercussions of being one of the only viable recreational options for Idahoans, with staff at the parks working harder than usual to maintain the recreation areas. Eagle Island State Park reports an increase of more than one-third of visitors between March and May 2020, and Quintana said other parks are seeing similar numbers.
The surge in state park attendance coincided with Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s order to self-isolate, which was issued on March 25. A month later, Gov. Brad Little delivered a proclamation encouraging Idahoans to enjoy the great outdoors as a means to alleviate any quarantine-induced cabin fever.
“People should get outside and get some fresh air,” Little said on April 16. “It’s healthy and reduces the stress we’re all feeling these days. But it has to be done responsibly with people protecting their health and the health of the larger community.”
In an effort to protect the land and people of the Gem State, the governor’s office introduced a campaign called Recreate Responsibly Idaho on April 16. The purpose of the campaign is to ensure that people can enjoy state parks while still taking necessary precautions to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has also released several statements regarding the new regulations and recommendations about how to safely enjoy state parks. Some of the advice includes tips like maintaining at least six feet of distance from people who aren’t family members or housemates, bringing food and drinks from home to minimize social interaction, and wearing a mask when necessary. The department also advises people to be aware of limited access to public restrooms and water fountains.
Gary Shelley, who manages both Eagle Island and Lucky Peak State Parks, said park staff are used to seeing a high volume of visitors during the summer, but that they have never seen anything like this in the spring, when the parks usually begin hiring more staff in preparation for the summer. Shelley said that the parks were caught off guard and under staffed by the wave of pent-up Idahoans.
“Our staff is wearing masks, wiping down hard surfaces and doing the best they can,” said Shelley. “We recommend wearing masks and staying away from other groups of people, but we really haven’t seen people doing that. There is only so much we can do, we need the public to help keep everyone safe.”
While camping and other overnight activities have been prohibited, day use of Idaho state parks has remained mostly open throughout the pandemic, aside from short, hour-long closures meant to regulate the amount of people in a park. This is not the case in neighboring states like Washington, which have only recently begun to open their parks for day use and water sports activities. Idaho has seen an increase in people coming from other states with stricter outdoor recreation guidelines, in addition to Idaho residents exploring parks for the first time.
For example, May 2020 saw a 63% increase in vehicles at Eagle Island State Park over the same month in 2019, and June 2020 is projected to follow a similar pattern. Quintana said this trajectory is not only hard on the environment near the parks, but on the staff who take care of the land.
“It’s about taking care of eachother,” Shelley said. “It’s not just about one person, it’s about all of us. We are all in this together, and we need people to act with patience, common sense, and kindness to the community.”