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Coronavirus and the outdoors: The pandemic effect

The marina at Lake Sakakawea State Park reflects the demand for getting outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic. Campgrounds have often been running at full capacity as people turn to the outdoors for leisure activity.

It has been a very busy season in the North Dakota outdoors. People have discovered that hiking, camping, fishing and any number of other outdoor activities offers great relief during the current coronavirus pandemic, a welcome change from living lives in semi-isolation.

By late spring, when it was evident that the coronavirus pandemic was changing everyday lives, more and more people began turning to the outdoors rather than adhere to a “stay at home” mentality in dealing with an invisible enemy. Being outdoors is a great way to practice social distancing, to avoid crowds and contact with likely sources of COVID-19.

North Dakota State Parks approached the pandemic with caution, delaying the opening of campgrounds and facilities. For a time it seemed the impossible would happen, that State Parks might remain closed for the season. That was avoided as knowledge of coronavirus increased and precautions were put in place. Public reaction was over-whelming.

“Ever since May, every weekend there’s no room left,” said Greg Corcoran, Lake Sakakawea State Park manager. “At first it was every other site and then we opened all up after that.”

Other State Parks report similar demand. Some special events were dropped from State Parks’ schedules to meet social distancing guidelines. Not all rental equipment, such as bicycles and kayaks, has been available to the public. Many amenities, such as cooking utensils, were removed from rental cabins and yurts to limit possible sources of transmission of coronavirus.

“There’s been a lot of cleaning that’s been taking a toll on staff,” said Corcoran. “We’ve got three comfort stations and a fish cleaning station to clean and disinfect. But we’ve not heard of any issues and get complimented on how clean it is here.”

State Parks issued a statement in late June complimenting park visitors for doing a “great job of social distancing” while at the parks. State Parks has been conveying the Centers for Disease Control recommendations on social distancing and personal hygiene to visitors.

Business at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department has, and still is, being done in a much different manner due to coronavirus. All of the department’s offices are closed to the general public without an appointment. Game and Fish is mandated not to exceed 50% capacity at any one time, meaning a number of personnel have been working from home for several months.

“Behind the scenes we are still getting our work done,” said Scott Peterson, deputy director. “Coronavirus has created some challenges but we still are delivering services to our customers. We’re a little bit unique. Fifty percent capacity hasn’t been a huge challenge because many personnel are in the field anyway.”

While many people working from home have discovered, it’s not always a preferred method of doing business. An example is advisory board meetings held by Game and Fish. The mandatory meetings were held via computer rather than in a meeting room open to the public.

“A virtual meeting was the only way we could do it, really,” explained Peterson. “We met the obligation of the law but, at the same time, virtual meetings don’t really get you a good feel, a read of body language, and you don’t get a real interpretation of what people are thinking.”

Game and Fish was able to complete their annual fish spawning this past spring, no small accomplishment given the strict guidelines in place to combat coronavirus. Additionally, the NDG&F was able to report waterfowl survey information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believed to be the only agency in the Central Flyway to accomplish the task.

Another challenge, said Peterson, has been hunter education. Young, prospective hunters must complete a hunter education program before acquiring a hunting license. The programs are taught in classroom settings.

“We’re still working through it. A lot of class were half-way through when this all began,” said Peterson. “Our problem was how to get these students through class before the deer application deadline. We decided to do an online option but students still would need to attend a testing event to fulfill their requirements.”

Peterson said a number of students still have to complete in-person exams but Game and Fish is working their way through it.

“There’s no doubt about it, this COVID thing has created a lot of challenges for us,” remarked Peterson.

The Outdoor Heritage Fund Advisory Board has also had to deal with long-distance meetings. The OHF board makes recommendations regarding special projects funding to the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Sept. 1 was the most recent deadline for submitting grant applications.

Robert Kuylen, South Heart, vice-president of the North Dakota Farmer’s Union, is not a fan of virtual meetings, something the board has had to engage in during the pandemic.

“I don’t care for it. You can’t read people,” said Kuylen. “There’s something about not being in person. It’s not member friendly. People don’t say as much or ask as many questions. For the next meeting I’m hoping to have a real one. Maybe we’ll get a bigger room.”

The OHF board is a large one, making scheduling meetings somewhat difficult, but the OHF hopes to consider the latest grant applications sometime in October. The three-member Industrial Commission, which has a history of approving OHF Advisory Board recommendations, is scheduled to meet Nov. 23.

National Wildlife Refuges in the state have also seen significant changes due to the pandemic. Visitor’s centers have remained closed for several months and a number of refuge employees are working from home rather than occupying an office within a refuge headquarter’s building.

“Our visitor center has been shut since the middle of March,” said Kathy Baer, Audubon NWR manager. “We’ve kept walking trails and the auto tour route open. We’ve had a number of people wondering if our building is going to open but everybody has been very understanding why the visitor center is shut.”

The situation is very similar at Upper Souris NWR, Des Lacs NWR, and J. Clark Salyer NWR, and there’s no changes expected at least for the near future. Visitor and educational programs at NWR’s have been canceled during the pandemic too, another big change for the public.

“We have school groups that want to come and we don’t know how we could safely do it,” explained Baer.

What has happened has been an increase in the amount of visitors utilizing refuge hiking trails, auto tour routes and such, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic when people were seeking a respite from staying at home.

“Just watching it seemed like a lot of folks were coming out,” said Baer. “In May and June definitely a lot more people were out walking and driving.”

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