Outdoor Recreation in the Time of COVID-19

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Outdoor Recreation in the Time of COVID-19

“Show me a healthy community with a strong economy, and I’ll show you a community that ensures their natural resources—land, nature, water, open spaces—exist for everyone.”


Standing on the trail at Section 16, high above the City of Colorado Springs and the vast plains beyond, there is only the sound of the wind and the sway of the trees. There is no news feed, no hum of technology, and no urgency. Nature gives us the space we need to find peace and calm despite the turbulent times. At no time in recent memory has nature played such an important part in our collective well-being than it did in 2020.

In the early spring of last year, challenges presented by a global pandemic brought nature and outdoor recreation to the forefront of our collective priorities. When Governor Polis evolved his “safer at home” order to include the “vast, great outdoors,” a record number of people turned to nature for exercise, outdoor classrooms, and a way to spend free time. By summer, it had never been more apparent that the investment that communities have made in public parks and open spaces was fortuitous—the land is essential to our mental and physical health and well-being.

The impact to the land, however, was significant. Record numbers of outdoor enthusiasts flooded trailheads and parking lots, and campgrounds overflowed with visitors. Infrastructure and amenities were pushed to their limits and beloved parks and open spaces, including the Paint Mines Interpretive Park (a Palmer protected property) and Garden of the Gods, saw a disturbing increase in social trails and graffiti. From January through October, Colorado State Parks reported a 23 percent increase in visitors to its parks across the state. Lake Pueblo State Park saw a record 2.7 million visitors during that time and was forced to limit the number of vehicles admitted during the high season. And outdoor industry manufacturers worked hard to keep up with demand as sales skyrocketed for bikes, kayaks, paddleboards, and other specialty recreation equipment.

While Palmer’s land conservation role is often focused on the “front end” of conserving properties such as Red Rock Canyon or Ute Valley Park as open spaces for public use, less attention is paid to the ongoing, perpetual stewardship responsibility. Indeed, it is Palmer’s legal obligation to ensure the care, stewardship, and conservation values of the property are protected forever. We have known that the impacts to the land will only increase as Colorado’s population grows and everyone, rightfully, seeks out joy, comfort, or adventure in the outdoors. While 2020 may or may not be an outlier year of outdoor recreation use, we know the multi-year trend is a continuing increase.

  • We must support our municipalities, counties, and state and national public agencies in meeting demand, creating safe environments, and maintaining the quality of the land.
  • We need to strengthen and promote the popular Recreate Responsibly and Leave No Trace guidelines.
  • We need to continue to add to our public lands portfolio and increase acreage and access to accommodate Colorado’s growing population.