Our guest blogger this week is Yvonne Sheasby, a graduate research assistant working with the Regional Resilience Partnership while pursuing her Masters degree at Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
It was quite early in the morning when my partner and I started our trek in the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. The cold howled against my cheeks with every step I took, and although I was quickly losing my breath as we hiked up the unforgiving rocky path before us, I could not help but stare at the natural beauty overcoming my senses. At the top of each hill the beginning of a new ecosystem spread before our eyes. The tree limbs seemed to dance in the wind, greeting us as if we had come home. Surrounded by nature, it was such a pleasant atmosphere, breathing in the fresh air as we shrugged off our pandemic woes for one peaceful day. I could not help but feel unencumbered by the anxiety I had been experiencing. I looked up into the elongated tree limbs to see the sun smiling back at me. However, it was not the picture I hoped for. The longer I looked at the scene before me, the more I grew upset and uneased. For it was not a leaf that sparkled in the sunlight, but a plastic water bottle hanging off the end of a tree branch.
My peace was shattered as I hiked up and down the long path only to find more litter hiding in nature. Going into this trip, my expectation was to find pristine wilderness, away from the negative impacts of human presence. However, this was a silly notion I have been holding onto since I was a child; a thought I had not fully grasped until now. These national and state parks are not exactly true wilderness, but a version of nature that we are responsible for if we wish to continue to access it.
Some national parks have described an increase in visitation as people seek refuge from quarantine, and along with it, increased trash and sanitation issues. Glacier National Park, Big Bend National Park, Great Falls National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area have all reported increases in visitation following COVID-19. Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a timed entry system with the goal of keeping capacity at 60 percent. However, eager hikers and backpackers have found a loophole around these restrictions by arriving early in the morning before the regulations can be enforced. Rangers and U.S. Forest Service officers have noted increases in litter and trash in the Rocky Mountain region, with some visitors not obeying the pack-it-in/pack-it-out principle, and dumpsters in parking lots filling quite quickly.
With more people turning to the great outdoors for solace during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to know when and where we should draw the line. I know it is hard not to get lost in what the virus has brought onto the human population. The pandemic has been characterized as an international tragedy on a historic scale, and with this prolonged grief has come a mental health crisis. Quarantine has only highlighted the positive impact to mental health that time outdoors provides. Many people, including myself, have taken advantage of the opportunity to be outdoors now more than ever. Why not look for an escape in the wilderness?
State and national parks were created to conserve natural scenery, preserve the objects and wildlife within them, and for the overall enjoyment of people. We should take advantage of going outdoors more as the pandemic wreaks havoc on our daily lives. However, it is important to me to protect these parcels of land and foster environmental consciousness to keep the great history of the Earth and ourselves with it. In times of such uncertainty, I still believe it is vital to look after the land in which we all live as we look after ourselves and our loved ones. The next time I venture to the great outdoors, I will ask myself: Am I leaving this land as it was before I came here?