How COVID-19 is Affecting the Trails Community

Recently American Trails conducted a survey of the trails community to find out how this pandemic has impacted trail projects, funding, volunteer work, and more. We also talked to trail users and medical professionals to get their perspective on what they would like to see from the outdoor recreation industry in response to COVID-19.

by Taylor Goodrich, Communication and Media Specialist, American Trails

New signs and sanitizing stations were installed at the Oak Grove War Memorial Walking Trail in Oak Grove, Kentucky. Photo via Oak Grove Tourism.

The Trail Industry Perspective

American Trails has collected data from a nationwide survey filled out by over 250 participants on the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on trails. The effects on the ground range from closing of trails to modification of trail use, increased signage, new regulations, and more. We also collected data on how trail organizations are being effected including employment, funding, working from home modifications, etc.

The trails industry has seen a significant impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The overall numbers we have projected based on our survey are:

Total value of contracts lost: $13.8 M+

Total volunteer hours lost: 383,000+

Total projects or events cancelled or postponed: 3,865+

Although the highest numbers of losses come from larger organizations, such as state agencies, even very small organizations are seeing the impact from volunteer hours and donations cut due to the current situation. We believe the trails industry can play a significant role in boosting the economy of the country as a whole, and now more than even it is important to lobby for full funding and recovery of trail industry losses so the outdoor recreation industry can help move the country forward.

You can download the full report attached to this article to get more in depth information on the industry wide effects.

The User Perspective

We took to social media to survey trail users and get their perspective on how their outdoor recreation experience has changed due to COVID-19. Many trail users are frustrated due to overcrowding on some trails, as well as other users not respecting social distancing guidelines. Overwhelmingly trail users support trails staying open, but would like to see regulation and safety measures in place to stave off overcrowding and make sure everyone is following guidelines. Many trail users stated that more education is needed, such as signage along trails and communication from trail management explaining proper etiquette and protocol during this time.

Dr. Morgan Green

Dr. Morgan Green

The Medical Perspective

We interviewed Dr. Morgan Green of SHIFT to get his thoughts on the outdoor recreation industry can help the nation both get through the current pandemic and prepare for any future issues like COVID-19. SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow) is an annual summit that explores issues at the intersection of outdoor recreation, conservation and public health.

From the medical perspective, we are seeing a lot of information about trails being crowded right now. Some people are hesitant to go out. What are your thoughts on the balance of how important it is to go out and get exercise, but also being safe?

Oh, I think it's super important. So I think that it's not so much a matter of a balance. It's about trail leadership and park leadership and those who are running the outdoor space really seeing what we can do as a community to ensure that we're following appropriate public health measures. And right now, the biggest public health measure that we are pointing to that's helping to flatten the curve nationwide and reducing spread of Coronavirus, especially as we see it devastating more vulnerable populations, is the whole 6-foot distance social distancing. It's unclear because it's really state by state on who wants facemasks or not.

It's a really tricky spot because we are, as we're seeing, in a political and information kind of war based on the region with what we want to see. So it’s looking at the suggested places that are giving out the best most evidence based information. For one the CDC is recommending nationwide everyone wear masks because y'all are probably kind of dirty and people aren't following the instructions.

A lot of states, on an individual statewide level, some places are saying wear your mask outside. I live in Michigan, and right now in Michigan, we are only recommending masks when you are inside enclosed spaces. So for Michigan, it's not from a state level recommended. If I'm going out on my bike or me or my wife are walking on the trails outside, we do not need to wear masks.

So I think going back to synthesize, what's the balance? The balance is from true leadership. For park leadership, those in charge really kind of looking and seeing if they are leading in a park where we are having poor compliance or social distancing, meaning that if you have people not living in the same households not honoring the six foot distance.

That’s something to really look for, as a park leader, what can we do, or what can we have staff do from an education standpoint? There's a monitoring standpoint to help that. So I think that that's a portion of what can we do to adhere to the best public health directives that we have right now. But for people in general I would say, oh my goodness, please get outside. We are finding more than ever before that some of the conditions that are linked to being sedentary are on the rise.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, which is a gigantic problem particularly in the United States, are all on the rise. Those are linked to stress and sometimes alcohol, sometimes smoking, but very largely a common ground is inactivity. So being able to get outside puts ourselves in a healthier physical condition. This is a large wakeup call that we should do that as safely as we possibly can.

New signs have gone up on the Norwalk River Valley Trail in Connecticut to encourage social distancing. Image via Good Morning Wilton

New signs have gone up on the Norwalk River Valley Trail in Connecticut to encourage social distancing. Image via Good Morning Wilton

So are you seeing those underlying conditions can make it worse when you test positive for a virus like this?

So I personally, because I'm pediatrics, don't see a lot of Coronavirus. I do know in my hospital from those kids who did have significant complications, they were overweight and they did have asthma. One did have diabetes. So we are seeing adult like problems that are causing our younger kids to have much worse outcomes. From a national standpoint we are seeing lower health with these, what we call comorbidities, or added problems on top of each other.

We are seeing them in larger numbers with those have negative outcomes with Coronavirus. That's well documented. So, yes, and really going forward after the Coronavirus pandemic has passed, pushing outdoor recreation could be a way to prepare the population for another pandemic. Outdoor recreation makes a healthier population. We are seeing that overall health matters significantly.

As many ways that we can advocate for people to be healthy, the better. We've known before Coronavirus that being in an “ideal body” doesn’t mean there’s a magic number or magic shape, but talking with your doctor and being an ideal body weight for you is important. We know that not having diabetes is healthier than having diabetes. Not having high blood pressure is healthier than having high blood pressure. We are aware and we are seeing with Coronavirus, that people with those additional conditions do have a much higher likelihood of worse outcome.

So, yes, I would argue that in terms of us as the outdoor industry, how could we look at that? We need to find ways to overcome different barriers to outdoor recreation, whether that be transportation, whether that's perceived safety, whether that is that feeling of belonging, or inclusiveness. If we are creating spaces so people of multiple racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds can feel equally welcomed in the same location, which is not something that we have often in this country, that’s important.

If we're able to help bridge those gaps, and identify and work with those in our communities to bring people outside, it’s a great benefit for the community at large. So being able to access the beauty of a really nice walking path lined with trees, being able to sit outside and hear birds chirping, having that leisure time to be outside and away from screens can help the general population.

It's still a newer territory where there are some doctors looking into the mental health aspects of being outside. We know that both with Coronavirus and even before the pandemic hit, we're having record highs of depression and anxiety. So there's a need to get outdoors for people both with mental health and physical health issues who are suffering and are at increased risk for poor outcomes expected from viral attacks like this.

From a medical standpoint are you expecting to see a lot of mental health concerns coming from people having to stay indoors and quarantine due to this pandemic?

Absolutely. I'm not a psychiatrist so I don’t specifically take care of only mental health disorders, but with pediatrics, we do for periods of time. We do encounter patients who struggle with mental health. We do see a lot of depression. We do see a lot of anxiety with panic attacks and such. So I do have contact with patients, with anxiety, patients with depression. And we are seeing from our patients at least a worsening in those symptoms nationwide. Especially if there's problems in the home. You know, not everyone has a safe or healthy home environment.

I work in Detroit specifically, and not everyone lives in a safe community. So being in a location that you may not feel comfortable with, and not ever being able to kind of escape to school or escape out on the town to a movie theater or something is difficult, and also family tensions as people are losing their jobs and unemployment is going to record highs. The difficulty and stress that goes along with poverty trickles down to our children as they're seeing families struggle in ways that they hadn't before, or a family member lost one or two of the jobs they were holding.

And food is now scarce. Toilet paper is absent. So, yes, we are seeing a lot of problems. SHIFT had a really cool webinar yesterday and one of the doctors, she said something I really like, that even just stepping outside to take three deep breaths, just taking that mental association of being outside breathing air, getting out of my home, even if it's a short period of time, could be helpful. And so I would talk with my patients and I would assess, what are people's ability to get outdoors. I know right now for Michigan, even with our shelter in place, we do have opportunity to go outside without a mask and we can do that.

I would absolutely encourage people that if you have the opportunity, especially with all of this time, to see where you're nearby, find a trail or nearby nature touchpoint, because trails are great. There's amazing exercise and they're kind of curated to be beautiful in all these different aspects. But if you live in a spot where a trail is not accessible, going to a park or a place for those patches of trees, going to a lakeside or wherever you can be to just get outside.

Okay great, and is there anything you want to add that we haven’t touched on?

I guess I'd say that we are identifying that there is huge differences in how different communities are affected by problems like we're seeing with Coronavirus. It's multifactorial, with many different reasons why and how it does have higher rates of bigger impact in communities of color, in lower income communities, and what we're now calling more vulnerable communities.

So we're seeing that there's a special problem there. And so I would say one of the unique and beautiful challenges we have as an outdoor industry is, how can we position ourselves to make everyone healthier through things like trails? So the next time something happens we're at a better peak health, especially if we're aware that being in poor health can make us sicker later when something like COVID-19 happens.. I think really taking those opportunities to broaden our net and broaden our outreach to get as many people to use trails and recreate as much as possible is important.

So I guess it's a twofold charge. One is that we are seeing that there's definitely different impacts and definitely different issues with access and structural oppression and different problems that are causing these inequities. So we as trail leaders or outdoor leaders who may run these beautiful spaces and have charge over that, what can we do and how can we further broaden our reach so people are coming out, including maybe communities of people who we don't see frequently on our local trails.

Then charge two, again taking that leadership role with education on best practices. It's totally easier said than done. But again, if we're seeing that this 6-foot social distancing that most states are encouraging is not being enforced, how can we help? Can we train our rangers? Can we train or be able to get more staff involved to help be stewards in promoting that and encouraging people to be six feet apart. We want to be able to give everyone that sense of comfort, just so that we're both providing a good space that is loved and appreciated, while also asking how can we keep this space as safe for as many people as possible so it can stay open as long as possible.

Published May 20, 2020

About the Author

Taylor Goodrich started with American Trails in January 2018 as Communication and Media Specialist. Taylor currently lives in Dallas, Texas, which is also where she grew up and where she attended the University of North Texas receiving her degree in History. While in college she started doing freelance work editing and writing, and also got into graphic design and discovered she loves the creativity and craft of digital arts. After college she traveled quite a bit, and lived in both the Pacific Northwest and in New Mexico, and while in both of those places took full advantage of what the outdoors had to offer. After moving back to Texas she started moving towards doing graphic design, social media, and communications work full time, and she has contracted with several companies from tech startups, to music festivals, to law firms, to grow their social media and digital communications presence. Taylor loves hiking and kayaking especially, and is glad to be working with an organization that fights for further accessibility and stewardship of our nation’s trails. She feels very lucky that in this position she will be able to use her professional skills and passion for something she is also very personally passionate about, and in helping to grow American Trails.

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