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Coronavirus and the outdoors: Closures mount

A fisherman eyes the Douglas Bay campground area on Lake Sakakawea. The campground is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the Corps the opening of the campground for the summer season is currently being reviewed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kim Fundingsland/MDN

The coronavirus pandemic has far reaching tentacles that wrap around many outdoor activities. What is on many people’s minds now is to what extent and for how long. While answers to those questions remain unknowns, the growing list of precautions that has effected outdoor-related activities is extensive.

There was some indication of the scope of the coronavirus pandemic on the outdoors when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced last Sunday that all Illinois State Parks were closed until further notice. As is the case in North Dakota, many of the Illinois State Parks have lakes and popular boat ramps. Thus, it seemed only a matter of time until similar action would be taken in this state.

Late Wednesday North Dakota State Parks announced closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the move is understandable, State Parks did not invoke complete closure. Here’s the statement from State Parks and Recreation:

“The North Dakota Parks and Recreation is closing all state parks and recreation buildings to the public effective Thursday, March 19. However, day-use facilities at the state parks, including trails and boat ramps will remain open to the public as of this time, and recreation and natural areas continue to remain open for day use.

The Parks and Recreation closure includes, but is not limited to, all overnight facilities, museums, visitor and interpretative centers, marinas and comfort stations. The department is also postponing or canceling all interpretive and special events. The campgrounds will also be closed until further notice. Any persons with a reservation that will be affected by this closure will be contacted by department staff and provided the option to move or cancel their reservation.”

Now, the question is, how long will the closure last and will it be expanded? Many things have have been changing very quickly during the current COVID-19 pandemic and probably will continue to do so. Could the State Parks closures extend into the summer season? Given what has happened in the past few weeks such a scenario is not outside the realm of possibility.

Fortunately, the boat ramps are remaining open. However, they are still choked with ice and are not in use anyway. What precautions might be necessary when parking lots and boat ramps become busy remains in the future but, based on the practice of social distancing, some changes are possible.

What affect the coronavirus will have on the camping season is not yet known. If the pandemic persists, there is a real possibility that the normally full campgrounds at our State Parks will look quite different. Those decisions will be made at a later date.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took action earlier this week in response to COVID -19. They announced the closure of all Visitor Centers and the cancellation of all public group tours and events until further notice.

However, said a release from the Corps, “Day use areas, parks and boat ramps that are currently open will remain open at this time.” The Corps added that “the scheduled opening of campgrounds for the summer recreation season is currently being reviewed.”

The Corps announcement means that visitors and tour groups will not be allowed at the Garrison Dam Power Plant, the only Corps’ facility in the region that conducts such visits. The Riverdale office of the Corps does oversee operation of the Downstream Campground below Garrison Dam, the West Totten Trail Campground at Lake Audubon, the Wolf Creek Campgound and the Douglas Bay Campground, both on Lake Sakakawea.

Boat ramps under Corps’ jurisdiction include Wolf Creek, Government Bay, Douglas Bay, Lake Audubon and the Garrison Dam Tailrace. The only ramp currently open is the Tailrace ramp because there is open water on the Missouri River. It is believed all boat ramps will see business as usual once the ice goes out, but there’s the possibility that some user restrictions could be put in place if the coronavirus pandemic continues into the summer.

Fishing guide Johnnie Candle, Devils Lake, is one of many outdoorsmen that has first-hand experience of what the coronavirus pandemic can do.

“It brought me to a screeching halt,” said Candle. “I don’t do winter guiding but I travel the country for trades show, open houses and seminars. Pretty much everyone has stopped. I don’t where this is headed going forward. It is interesting to say the least. Where’s it all going to stop?”

Candle’s question is being asked by many, and there is no answer available. It all depends on the coronavirus situation.

“I lost seven speaking engagements and I thought the coronavirus would never effect me,” said Candle. “This is going to have an economic impact in the outdoors season. What’s this going to do? It’s a trying time. We all have to work together.”

While the recent KX Sports Show was held at Minot’s State Fair Center, many other such shows have pulled the plug due to COVID-19. Included on the list was a big one, the 54th Annual Sioux Falls Empire Sportsman’s Show in South Dakota. It was scheduled for this past March 12-15. A full show of exhibitors was expected.

Dakota Territory Gun Show Collector’s Gun Shows were canceled for March in Mitchell and Watertown, SD were canceled in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Minot Rifle and Pistol Club Gun Show set for March 28-29 at the State Fair Center has also been nixed.

So too was the National Archery in the School shoot set for March 20-21 at the State Fair Center and the Pheasants for the Future Banquet set for March 20. All of the forementioned events draw hundreds of outdoor-minded people.

One of the most popular events on the Bis-Man Reel and Rec Sportmen’s Club is their Cabin Fever Social. This year’s Cabin Fever was scheduled for March 21 but has been postponed to May 9. No decision has yet been made on the North Dakota Sportfishing Congress banquet set for Bismarck on April 25.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department says it has canceled permits for late season ice fishing tournaments due to COVID-19. The department encourages people to get outdoors for fresh air, hiking and other activities that fall within the guidelines suggested by the governor and the Center for Disease Control.

Possible effect of the pandemic has not been lost on planners for open water fishing tournaments. Those events typically have a required rules meeting for tournament participants. Already some changes are being made, including the Masters Walleye Circuit that hosts several tourneys in North Dakota.

“They are still going to have events but no rules meetings in confined rooms,” said Candle.

The two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park have not escaped the coronavirus pandemic. Visitor’s Centers at the North and South Units closed earlier this week and will remain closed until further notice. As of this past Thursday, the ruling does not pertain to vehicle traffic or other day use within the parks.

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