COVID-19 Shouldn’t Turn State Parks Into an Amusement Park
COVID-19 Shouldn't Turn State Parks into Amusement Parks
Shortly after Gov. Kemp allowed a broader range of businesses to reopen on May 8, I headed outdoors to the local state parks. By this time, most of Atlanta had started venturing outdoors for recreation. Although the CDC and WHO guidelines are still enforcing social distancing measures, it wasn’t surprising a loosening of quarantine restrictions meant a loosening of people’s behaviors.
I headed off to Arabia Mountain and later Sweetwater State Park. The park employees informed me that maps were still available, parking fees were implemented, and that the visitors center and restrooms were temporarily closed. To no surprise, there were discarded masks and disposable gloves as I trotted towards the trailhead.
Visitors to Sweetwater State Park are allowed to swim, fish, picnic and hike along 15 miles of trails through dense forest and rocky shorelines. Upon arrival, I was absolutely shocked to see that it was being treated more like a water park than a state park. It was a field day for first-time visitors, which is normally a welcomed sight for state parks, but the number of people was astonishing. Honestly, I felt annoyed that I was the only one who didn’t get the memo; it was fine to go outdoors during this “quarantine.”
Something about this scene smelled fishy (and I’m not talking about the fish), so I had to get to the bottom of it. I spoke to Royce Johnson, Sweetwater Park Assistant Manager, about how state parks have been handling the recent influx of people visiting the park and if they were fulfilling the objectives under which they were constructed.
“We have 450 parking spaces in the park,” Royce said. “Once they are filled we have to close the gates. We usually don’t worry about closing the park unless it’s a National Holiday. Every weekend since the start of quarantine has been treated as a national holiday.”
It’s important to note 450 parking spaces could mean anywhere from 450-1000+ people.
In addition to the absurd amount of people, there were Capri-Sun’s, empty water bottles and other trash littered about the place. Most people were there to picnic but packed all of their food in disposable plastic bags and discarded their uneaten food in the forest.
This is a BIG NO-NO as discarded food can cause imbalances in the local ecosystem and an unhealthy dependence on human food from the animals.
Kids were running around all over the place and herds of families clogged the trail, making it almost impossible to enjoy the scenery. There was very little self-awareness and etiquette from the park attendees.
First-time visitors are a gift and a curse to every state park. They want new people to enjoy and explore the outdoors, but they also need to educate people on why park etiquette is important. To take on a task like education and maintenance, there needs to be a capable staff.
Royce also addressed questions about staffing.
The Friends of Georgia State Parks, a volunteer organization dedicated to the maintenance of the park, has not been active. “Members are volunteering on their own account,” said Royce. “But we have employed 100 percent of our staff and rangers throughout the duration of the quarantine.”
Royce informed me that many of the park goers are first-time visitors and he takes the time to answer any and all questions they might have. One advice he gave was to always check the maps before beginning your hike. Despite the trails being marked, it is a concern that first-time visitors might get lost.
Although state park employees have not had a day off looking after the land since the start of COVID-19, it is our job as visitors to respect the land for future generations. Pack out everything brought to the parks, including food scraps.
Georgia State Parks are open from dawn to dusk with most offering maps and restroom facilities. The state parks are fully staffed and phone lines are open to answer any questions between 9 a.m to 5 p.m.
Remember to stay safe and still follow social distancing guidelines, even at your favorite state park.