Officials explain decision to close Rocky Mountain National Park as they work toward a phased reopening
With Colorado following safer at home guidelines, officials are looking at a gradual reopening of Rocky Mountain National Park. However, an exact date has not been determined.
According to Kyle Patterson, a spokesperson for the national park, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service is working to reopen national parks across the country in a safe manner.
Park staff at Rocky are going through the decision and planning process now, she said, but the exact date for a phased reopening remains unknown.
“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers and partners continues to be paramount,” Patterson said via email. “Our operational approach will be to examine each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance.”
Rocky Mountain National Park is bringing on seasonal positions starting in May and staggered throughout the month. This will include seasonal visitor and resource protection rangers.
Patterson explained the park’s decision to close was due in part to the state’s ski resorts shutting down on March 15. That weekend, which marks the beginning of spring break, over 5,000 vehicles visited Rocky Mountain National Park.
“After learning ski resorts had all been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many (people) were seeking to travel to other mountain destinations,” Patterson said. “Rocky and our surrounding communities were quickly becoming a draw for additional visitors.”
Patterson added that the park relies on volunteers this time of year, many of whom are over age 65 and at an increased risk from COVID-19. The park closed its visitor centers on March 17, but continued to see high concentrations of tourists.
Rocky Mountain National Park closed to the public March 20. In the weeks following, Estes Park and Grand County banned short-term lodging accommodations, and Gov. Jared Polis announced the statewide stay at home order.
Officials have been criticized for closing the park because recreation is considered a safe social distancing practice. However, after this message was spread, it was clarified that residents should recreate in their neighborhoods rather than travel elsewhere.
Because of the popularity of Rocky, officials felt that keeping the park open risked too much non-local travel, Patterson said.
Even now, safer at home guidance still specifies that recreation should occur within 10 miles of someone’s residence, and many people fear that reopening Rocky could risk overwhelming the health resources of the rural communities surrounding the park.
Some Grand County residents have argued the park could have stayed open on the west side, as the requests for the park to close specifically came from Estes Park’s mayor and Larimer County’s public health director. Patterson explained that Rocky Mountain National Park is one park and to close one side is to close the other.
“The decision to close Rocky Mountain National Park on March 20 was an extremely difficult decision to make,” Patterson said. “It was made to protect the overall public health of our surrounding communities as well as park staff and volunteers.”
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