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Washington recreation lands remain open despite rocketing COVID-19 rates

As cases of COVID-19 surge across Washington and the country, business are closing yet again,  hospital beds again are filling and health officials are urging people to avoid holiday travel (at least that’s new).

It all feels familiar, except for one major difference: Washington land managers and recreation czars aren’t urging folks to avoid the outdoors, nor are they closing lands to public access.

In the spring, roughly 7 million acres of state-owned land closed in hopes of preventing travel. Beloved local gems like Mount Spokane and Riverside State Park were suddenly off limits. Those lucky enough to live near green space were urged to take a walk in a local park.

This time it’s different.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, for instance, is not making any new changes due to the viral surge. The Washington State Parks system is closing indoor activities, but parklands remain open. It’s a similar story at the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“We understand the physical and mental benefits of being able to get outside to fish, hunt, hike, wildlife watch and do other activities at this time,” said WDFW spokeswoman Staci Lehman in an email. “We are reminding people to please be responsible and respectful of others they encounter while outside and do their best to social distance from those not in their immediate party and to wear masks when that isn’t possible and where appropriate.”

That difference in approach reflects a greater understanding of the virus and the fact that it’s fall, not spring, said Jon Snyder, the recreation policy advisor for Gov. Jay Inslee.

“We can see that we can’t tie many cases to outdoor recreation cases,” he said.

In particular, the spring closures were aimed at preventing travel. With several popular hunting and fishing seasons opening – lowland trout and coastal fishing in particular – officials worried the surge of travel would spread the virus to rural communities.

“We do not have anything going on right now that gets thousands of people crossing the state for fishing,” Snyder said.

In 2018 and 2019 WDFW sold about 160,000 annual fishing licenses prior to opening day. The agency does not track where people fish, according to Peter Vernie, the licensing department manager. Vernie doesn’t believe people travel far for the opener because WDFW stocks so many lakes.

The bigger concern for WDFW was reports of “shoulder-to-shoulder” fishing at popular lakes, said Lehman.

Although the spring closures were deeply unpopular, leading to ”Let Us Fish” protests and vocal dissension among some Fish and Wildlife commissioners, Snyder defends them as necessary.

“Find any state that didn’t close and compare us to them,” he said. “At the time we just really needed to crush mobility.”

Brock Millern, a recreation and conservation manager for DNR, echoed Snyder. The mental and physical health benefits of going outside, combined with the increase in knowledge and decrease in good weather, has prompted a much different response.

Still, he cautioned that closures could happen.

“I think it’s possible that if we had places that were overrun as we were experiencing this spring that we could do some closures again,” he said.

One vocal critic of the spring closures was Kim Thorburn, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner from Spokane and the city’s former chief health officer. Although she supported the initial “blunt” response used early in the pandemic, she believed it needed to be curtailed immediately.

The continued closure of WDFW land in the spring, despite evidence that outdoor activities were some of the safest options, eroded trust in WDFW and the state as a whole, she said. That has led to lower compliance with more sensible requests, like mask wearing, she said.

“We still haven’t overcome the pushback to that drastic step in order to get really good compliance with the more nuanced control measures we need to take,” she said, adding that “so much about disease control is about individual behavior.”

The state’s more limited response now is promising, she said.

Locally, Spokane County trails and parks never fully closed in the spring and won’t now either, said county park planner Paul Knowles. In the spring “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Inslee urged Washingtonians to go outside and get exercise, while simultaneously shutting state lands.

Knowles said the county made an “intentional decision” to give people a place to go during the height of the spring pandemic.

Now, Knowles and others urge people to recreate responsibly.

“We see keeping these areas open as a more positive impact to the community, outweighing any potential negatives,” he said. “Clearly people appreciated it. Use skyrocketed at trailheads.”