40 state parks ordered closed by Gov. Tony Evers

    Courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources page on parks and recreation.
    Courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources page on parks and recreation.

    With few recreational activities left to help Wisconsinites ride out the state’s stay at home order, many are turning to nature. The state’s network of parks and trails have always been gems for nature and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. With most businesses closed, people out of work, and anxiety running high, those winding paths have been drawing more users, especially as the weather improves. But now, going into week three of Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order, even this escape will be sealed off.

    The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced on April 9 that it will close 40 state parks to the public. Coming a day after Wisconsin’s primary election, the new measure may have taken some Wisconsinites off-guard. Closing the parks was ordered by Gov. Tony Evers, effective April 10.

    “Unprecedented crowds, litter, and vandalism,” influenced the decision to close over three dozen state parks. Nearly 30 of the parks are all located in the south-central part of the state, with another 12 in the southeastern portion of the state.

    DNR Secretary Preston Cole headshot
    DNR Secretary Preston Cole

    A DNR press release notes that several parks experienced record levels of attendance recently. Over 16,000 people visited High Cliff last weekend, the only park closed in Wisconsin’s northeast region. Lapham Peak, in the southeast, had over 11,000 visitors. Kohler-Andrea had over 8,400 estimated visitors. Devils Lake, in the south-central region with the most closures, had over 7,600 estimated visitors with Mirror Lake, another outdoor recreational area in the region, breaking 3,800. Those numbers were all tallied during the weekend of April 4-5.

    The numbers were similar across the board. In the weeks prior to the closures, the DNR had noticed an uptick in visitors in the area, and had shifted to accommodate nationally recommended social distancing orders.

    Sarah Hoye, a spokesperson with the DNR, told Wisconsin Examiner that park staff and conservation wardens were, “where necessary, providing education and gentle reminders to visitors not following social distancing guidelines.”

    The importance of keeping the parks open for the mental health and wellbeing of Wisconsinites isn’t lost on the DNR. “We are happy to serve the residents of Wisconsin during this unprecedented time,” said Hoye. “Natural settings and outdoor recreation have a long history of improving mental, physical, emotional and social health.” Nevertheless, all things—except for the primary election—appear to be subject to change in the interest of flattening the curve of COVID-19’s spread.

    Several national park employees had tested positive for COVID-19, the Washington Post reports, by the time April rolled around. The developments compelled Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, to write a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt urging the closure of the parks, and more protection for employees.

    “Your inaction and failure to support the recommendations of experienced NPS managers and their local communities is putting NPS employees and local gateway community members at serious risk to exposure to the virus potentially carried by travelers from outside the local area,” Francis wrote.

    To help protect staff, Wisconsin’s DNR suspended fee collection and closed state park offices, visitor centers and other facilities. While that may have been the right decision for staff, it has left certain areas of parks vulnerable to irresponsible visitors. “If the public does not follow social distancing guidelines and vandalizes property,” the DNR stated, “more state parks may have to close.”

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    Doing your part to prevent that from happening also means picking up your trash. Many state parks, forests, and recreational areas don’t have garbage bins. These most recent closures will only be the first of more if the current pattern of behavior continues.

    In terms of valdelism Hoye explains, “Buildings and signs at Kohler-Andrae were spray-painted with profanity, some properties had hand sanitizer stolen from the bathrooms, plus high amounts of trash on trails and other areas.” Kohler-Andrae, however, was not one of the parks closed in the recent order. Generally speaking, Wisconsinites are encouraged to get out or exercise in their local neighborhoods only.

    “We know there are benefits to getting outdoors. But not doing this would put people’s lives at risk,” said DNR Secretary Preston D. Cole. “With the weather warming we are seeing increases in visitors and a myriad of challenges surrounding social distancing. In order to the protect the public, this is a necessary step.”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.