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Public land closures, ‘Stay Home’ orders highlight green space inequalities

The 12-mile Mica Peak Traverse hike is a challenging adventure close to Spokane. Here the beginning of the hike is seen as on Saturday Jan. 11, 2020. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

For the past two decades, Holly Weiler’s life has revolved, to some extent, around Mount Spokane State Park.

That started with long trail runs aimed at avoiding the wear and tear of pavement and lower-elevation summer heat. Lately, it’s been her work as the Washington Trails Association eastern Washington coordinator, with plenty of hiking and running mixed in.

“I really can’t think of when I’ve gone two weeks without going up there,” she said.

Now, she has no choice but to stay away.

On Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Parks closed their lands to public use. That was followed Wednesday morning by the Department of Natural Resources announcing a similar closure.

Put another way: In the space of 24 hours, more than 7 million acres of public land closed throughout the state. Regionally, that means beloved areas like Mount Spokane and Riverside State Park are locked, and WDFW lands, like Waikiki Springs, are off limits.

Meanwhile Spokane County and City parks remain accessible to the public, although play structures are off limits, as are some other facilities.

The decisions are the latest in widespread, and necessary, closures and restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But the state park and WDFW closures were particularly notable because of the emphasis put on outdoor recreation by public health officials and political leaders. Getting outside, they said, would help us stay physically healthy and mentally sane.

On Monday, when Gov. Jay Inlsee announced his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, he mentioned, explicitly, that it’s OK to take a walk or go on a bike ride.

In that context, Tuesday’s closures seemed confusing.

“How does that square?” asked Jeff Lambert, the executive director of the Dishman Hills Conservancy. “The governor encourages folks to go out and enjoy the outdoors. And yet you’re closing these facilities.”

Lambert and other recreation, conservation and public health leaders have wrestled with this tension for a week or more.

Initially, as the coronavirus spread throughout Washington and the nation, outdoor recreation was heralded as the safest bet. #socialdistancing trended on social media featuring all sorts of glamorous shots of solo adventures recreating far from crowds and, presumably, viruses.

That didn’t last as beloved areas were inundated with people “working from home” or simply not working. Small rural communities raised the alarm begging out of towners to stay away for fear of bringing the disease into areas ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic, much less a sudden surge in mid-week tourism.

Similar issues arose in Spokane with Iller Creek, Riverside State Park’s Bowl and Pitcher and other areas swarmed with people. Local trailhead parking was flooded with cars spilling onto neighborhood streets. Regionally, popular fishing areas saw “shoulder-to-shoulder” crowds. State parks across the state reported summertime levels of visitation.

“People hit public lands really hard last weekend,” said Staci Lehman, a spokeswoman for WDFW. “It was across the state.”

And so on Tuesday, much of that land closed.

Now the question remains, should we recreate outside, and if so, how?

“My interpretation is stay local,” Lambert said. “Stay home. Stay healthy. Stay local if you go outside.”

That’s exactly the point, said Jon Snyder, the recreation policy advisor for Inslee. He encourages people to recreate closer to home when possible.

“Gatherings of any size are discouraged outdoors, just as they are indoors, that includes buddies getting together to go on a hike,” he said in an email.

Instead, Snyder said head out on your own or with people with whom you live. And if you do encounter others, stay 6-feet away.

Which is worthy advice for anyone who happens to live close to a park or natural area. Unfortunately, many don’t. Instead, Inslee’s order highlights the realities of unequal access to green space.

“If you don’t have a park within 10 minutes, you’re walking around your neighborhood streets,” Weiler said. “And I feel really sorry for those folks.”

That disparity in access was at least part of the county’s and city’s decision to keep their parkland accessible, said county park planner Paul Knowles.

And green-space equity is one of the driving forces behind efforts like the Olmstead 2.0 plan, which hopes to preserve and connect natural and wild spaces in the Spokane area. Only 10% of Spokane County is public land, and a growing population is putting pressure on traditionally natural areas.

“This is just a really bizarre and interesting opportunity to witness the value of these lands as a public health resource,” said Dave Schaub, the executive director of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.

The crowds Schaub and others have seen may be harbingers of what is to come as the region grows, he said. And the lack of access for some, often obscured by our ability to jump in a car and drive somewhere else, is vividly clear now.

“We recognize that our natural lands and our outdoor recreation are crucial to our mental and physical health and wellness all the time,” Schaub said. “And perhaps especially now when there are fewer options available to us.”