To Promote Social Distancing, BLM Suspends Public Lands Entrance Fees
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is encouraging people to practice social distancing in the great outdoors, announcing that it was temporarily suspending entrance fees for public lands across the country. While this is good news for the broader public, the possibility of a surge of visitors underscores the need to adequately fund park maintenance—a problem the U.S. Senate appeared on the verge of addressing before the Coronavirus pandemic reached the United States.
The decision to open public lands has been billed as a way to get outdoors while following public health guidelines to “social distance”—allowing at least six feet between individuals and not gathering in groups. To facilitate distancing, park visitor centers and other building are closed while roads and trails are open.
“Our vast public lands overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, when the policy change was announced.
Under the new policy, the BLM and its agencies, including the National Parks Service, will waive standard access and amenities fees “for the foreseeable future.” Fees for overnight camping and the use of park facilities will continue and visitors are urged to follow public health guidance.
Already the new policy has been criticized by public health officials who fear that it could lead to overcrowding and potentially expose park staff and neighboring communities to the virus.
“We understand the reasons behind this decision,” says Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, who expressed concern about the safety of park staff.
“At a majority of park locations where it is currently possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities will be closed,” NPS said recently.
Not all national parks will remain open. Some, including visitor favorite Rocky Mountain National Park, are closed until further notice. In a notice posted to the Rocky Mountain National Park website on Friday, NPS urged potential visitors to use “the many digital tools already available to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.”
In a memorandum to Department of Interior employees earlier this week, Bernhardt thanked agency employees as they continued to work in the face of COVID-19 concerns, including mission critical works for the nation’s public lands.
“Department of the Interior (Department) employees are among the most dedicated and hard-working members of our Federal workforce. Across the Department, thousands of our heroic employees continue to perform critical missions, such as fighting fires, providing law enforcement, delivering public health services, inspecting oil platforms, and maintaining facilities at National Parks and on public lands,” Bernhardt wrote.
That included departmental employees working from home, he added.
“Thousands more are performing their duties from home, including writing and enforcing rules, receiving public input, executing leases, responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, and issuing permits,” Bernhardt continued. The memorandum will remain in effect “until it is amended, superseded, or revoked.”
Interior Department officials told E&E News employee safety and telework, along with short-term leave for non-essential workers who cannot work from home, will comply with administration and health protocols.
“The health and safety of our employees and the public remains our top priority,” officials said. “We are implementing mitigation strategies based on guidance provided by [the Department of Health and Human Services] and in coordination with state and local health authorities, and have determined the current level to be at 2A (aggressive containment) with some measure of 2B (community mitigation).”
Increasing park visitors—even before the current COVID-19 outbreak—also underscores the continuing need for park maintenance funding, an issue that has been pushed by representatives from western states for years. Earlier this month, legislation to address the problem, the Restore Our Parks Act, seemed on the cusp of passage.
In early March, Senate Republicans succeeded in getting President Trump’s support for the legislation, which would dedicate a portion of the rents and fees paid by oil and gas development on public lands towards addressing $12 billion in backlogged maintenance across the National Parks Service. Another bill would expand the program to also include national forests and other public lands.
At that time, passage of the legislation awaited only a scheduled vote. With Congress focused on developing an economic and ongoing public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the future of the Restore Our Parks Act remains uncertain.