Being able to get away to a park—whether national, state or local—played an important role in mental and physical health for a lot of us during the first months of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. And as we still struggle with the disease and all its new variants, parks still do.
Here’s the good news: as people flocked to parklands in search of peace and respite from the toll of mental anxiety and social isolation during the pandemic, they did so without increasing the spread of COVID-19.
More people in the parks also gave scientists an opportunity to study how the uptick in visitor numbers affected the wildlife residents. In addition, we’re continually learning more about how nature tourists and conservationists can work together to build back a better world where protected areas aren’t meant to push people away but rather highlight coexistence with nature and the positive interactions we’re able to have with each other.
Parks and the pandemic
In the early months of the pandemic in spring 2020, most public health officials recommended avoiding gathering in large groups outside. As a result, many municipalities closed public playgrounds with high-tough areas, such as swings and slides, out of caution. Other public parks, however, remained open and continued to be used throughout the pandemic.
Early speculation was that large group gatherings in parks could contribute to the transmission of COVID-19. In an effort to find out if this was the case, a scientific team from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, selected 22 small, urban parks (15 in Philadelphia and seven in New York City) located in or near neighborhoods representing a variety of levels of population density and vulnerability, according to U.S. Census data and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index—a tool that uses census data to identify communities that could need support during natural disasters and crisis situations. This allowed the team to account for these factors when examining the possibility of a link between park use and COVID-19 transmission. Park visitors were surveyed over a three-month period from May to July 2020, the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Citizen scientists assigned to each park observed how much and in what ways the selected sites were used and whether visitors were engaging in activities deemed to be high-risk for transmitting COVID-19, such as coughing without covering, playing contact sports and not wearing a mask.
Overall, only a small percentage of park users—1.2 percent in New York and 22.7 percent in Philadelphia—never wore masks. Most park users that were observed did not engage in high-risk behaviors; only 0.9 percent in New York and 0.7 percent in Philadelphia were observed frequently coughing or spitting without covering their mouths. And just 12.9 percent and 1.6 percent of people in New York City and Philadelphia, respectively, were observed frequently participating in contact sports. Park usage numbers were then compared to rates of COVID-19 transmission in the areas directly surrounding the parks.
Publishing their results in the Journal of Extreme Events, the Drexel University scientists stated that, regardless of the vulnerability of the adjacent neighborhoods, all parks tended to see more use. But this increased usage did not equate to higher transmission of COVID-19, which was more closely associated with the susceptibility level of the neighborhoods.
The fact that people continued to visit parks during the early stages of the pandemic—even during lockdowns—and that it didn’t contribute to the spread of COVID-19 underscores the value of parks as a respite for urban residents under stress.
Hikers and horseback riders
Of course, all this interest in outdoor activities in our parks and public lands that the COVID-19 pandemic fired up makes us wonder how wildlife in these places are being affected. A new study published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice highlights how we need to be mindful—especially now—of animal residents.
Like many parks, the South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park in southwestern British Columbia, Canada, and nearby regions are experiencing growing pressure from human activities, both industrial and recreational. Recently, researchers from World Wildlife Fund and partner organizations placed motion-activated cameras on the trails in and around the B.C. park, a region popular for wildlife-watching and diverting opportunities, such as ATV-riding, mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding. The researchers focused on 13 species, including black bears, grizzly bears, moose, mule deer and wolves.
Overall, the researchers found that environmental factors, such as elevation or the condition of a forest around a camera location, were generally more important than human activity in determining how often wildlife used the trails.
However, there were still significant impacts. Deeper analysis of trail use captured by the cameras showed that all wildlife tended to avoid places that were recently visited by recreational users. And the animals avoided mountain bikers and motorized vehicles significantly more than they did hikers and horseback riders.
“We already know that motorized vehicle access can disrupt wildlife; our initial findings suggest that other types of recreation may also be having impacts,” said study author and World Wildlife Fund lead scientist Robin Naidoo in a press release. To better understand and mitigate the effects of different human activities on wildlife, the team will continue to observe and analyze findings. But one thing is already certain: outdoor recreation needs to complement the sustainable use of public lands to avoid disruption of the ecosystem and loss of important species.
Conservation and commerce
Today, we almost universally accept that national parks are a key instrument of nature conservation. They’re also some of the most recognized institutions in nature tourism worldwide.
In Finland, for example, the founding of Koli National Park in 1991 was preceded by a heated debate over whether the area should be developed into a modern resort for mass tourism or whether its unique landscape and nature should be highly protected. The conflict was solved by adopting sustainable nature tourism.
Creating jobs, preventing environmental harm, satisfying tourists, and operating within the local cultural and social frameworks all constitute part of sustainable tourism. By adhering to those principles, the national park’s management was able to reach its nature conservation goals. Moreover, the hopes and wishes of area residents and companies on how the economy and tourism should be developed were taken into consideration, which fostered a positive attitude towards the national park among locals.
The study that showed how the concept of sustainable nature tourism plays a key role in mediating conflicts between tourism and nature conservation was published in Tourism Geographies in September 2020.
Boon and business
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly showed us how important our natural and green spaces are for our health and well-being. And while the increased visits were a boon for interest in keeping our national parks and preserves going strong, the wildlife in them struggled with our increased presence. But as the study in Finland shows, nature conservation and the business of tourism can coexist—and benefit each other in the process.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,