Recreation Advocate

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US Forest Service Issues Guidance for Operation of Recreation Sites During COVID-19 Situation

As the response to the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, NOHVCC will strive to keep our readers up to date on the impact it is having on OHV recreation. While every individual must make decisions based on their own health, willingness to take on risk, and recommendations and mandates from local, state and federal governments, at the moment, being outdoors and isolated (dispersed recreation) meets current “social distancing” recommendations. Currently, federal land managers seem to agree with this assessment. The National Park Service is modifying services to meet current realities (details here), and recommends users to contact individual parks for specific details on park operations. Please take this situation seriously and do all that you can to protect yourself, your loved ones, and our communities.

Please note that the response to COVID-19 is evolving rapidly, and the situation could change at any moment, including guidance from land management agencies. Please continue to monitor the news and other sources of information for the latest updates to the situation in your area.

The U.S. Forest Service Headquarters has issued guidance to Regional Foresters and Station Directors on the operation of trails and other recreational sites and activities during the COVID-19 situation and has shared that guidance with NOHVCC. The guidance makes clear that the Forest Service understands that “social distancing measures are necessary to preserve the health and welfare of Forest Service employees, partners, cooperators, our families, and the local communities in which we live.” And that “certain Forest Service facilities such as visitor centers are, by their very nature, designed to draw in large numbers of people. It is inherently challenging to impose restrictions on the number and behavior of visitors at such sites without compromising the intended services.”

Still, the guidance recognizes that dispersed use should be handled differently. “In forested areas and facilities that foster dispersed recreational access such as campgrounds, day use sites, and the NFS trail system, person-to-person contact can be minimized with risk mitigations. Access by the public to those sites need not be restricted so long as sanitation measures and staffing capacity are adequate to minimize risks to public health and damage to resources.”

Effectively, the Forest Service is using this guidance to inform local officials, known as line officers, that they have broad discretion on whether to keep trails and other dispersed areas open during the crisis. To keep these areas open, line officers must make an assessment of risk. “Facilities, including outside interpretive trails, open areas, and public access points may remain open if risk assessments establish a framework for such,” the Forest Service advises.

Risk assessments will include Forest Service personnel making value judgements as recommendations and mandates come from all levels of government. “Forest Service risk management assessments require recreational services to adhere to public health recommendations concerning ‘social distancing.’ This evaluation is critical to inform strategies the Agency is taking to mitigate risks of exposure to both employees and the public, while not unnecessarily restricting access to National Forest system lands.”

The risk assessment will include evaluating whether adequate staff is available and whether or not certain sanitary guidelines can be met (i.e. clean toilets). There may be an opportunity for those willing to offer assistance to Forest Service line officers to keep trails and areas open. If you are willing to volunteer, please reach out to Forest officials to determine if there is an opportunity to help. Also, if you intend to visit a Forest to recreate, please call ahead. You can get phone numbers by visiting https://www.fs.usda.gov/ and selecting the appropriate Forest.

We urge all OHV recreationists to understand that this is a unique situation, and to work with local officials throughout the crisis. We must help protect the health and safety of our land managers as well as ourselves and our families. If closures do occur, it can be helpful to ask if you can assist in a way that will allow the area to reopen, but please understand that that may not be possible in all cases.

Please visit the Be Prepared website for the latest Federal government information.

The entire NOHVCC family encourages you to heed safety warnings and to take COVID-19 guidelines seriously. We look forward to getting out on the trail with you as soon as things return to normal.

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