Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia state parks and natural area preserves have become popular destinations for visitors, particularly early on, when so many other recreational sites were closed.
The attention has been generally welcomed — the parks and preserves belong to everyone, after all, and what better place to spend some time than the great outdoors? — but the large crowds have resulted in unusual stress on public lands and, in some cases, environmental damage.
In June, for example, state parks saw 120,000 more visits than the previous June, said Melissa Baker, director of Virginia State Parks.
“Weekdays function much more like weekends than they ever have,” Baker said of visitation at some parks. “If it’s a nice, sunny weekend, every weekend is now the Fourth of July weekend. It’s not those few key pressure points in the summer. It’s consistent.”
In particular, parks in close proximity to Northern Virginia — such as Leesylvania, Mason Neck and Shenandoah River — have seen heavy visitation, she said.
Parks overall have seen increases in alcohol use and greater amounts of litter, Baker said, as well as more instances of photographs and videos on social media driving crowds to specific sites.
An example is Falling Spring Falls, a scenic waterfall near Covington managed by the parks system. Sightseers are not permitted beyond an overlook because of “dangerous conditions and resource degradation,” Baker said, but after a video of people in the water went viral on TikTok and Instagram, the area has been “inundated with visitors” scaling a security fence and trying to reach the falls.
“Of course, it’s very compelling photography, and it’s beautiful ... but it’s not a safe place to be,” said Baker, noting there are also trespassing issues because of surrounding private property. “We are having to maintain a near-constant presence in that area.”
Though they are having to work with lower staffing levels systemwide for fiscal reasons, state parks are generally better equipped to deal with crowds than the state’s natural area preserves, most of which, like the parks, are owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Parks are designed for people to visit and use, while the preserves are managed to benefit the rare plants, animals and natural habitat.
Twenty-one of the state’s 65 natural area preserves also provide “low-intensity” public access with small parking lots and trails for light hiking, said Jason Bulluck, director of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, the DCR division that manages the state natural area preserves, but they are not designed or staffed for heavy visitor use and have an even smaller staff.
Over recent months, several of the preserves have had to be closed for repairs because of visitors behaving badly.
At Channels Natural Area Preserve in Southwest Virginia, large rocks were thrown into the narrow slot canyons, among other vandalism.
At Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve in Floyd County, the issue was heavy trail use — as well as hikers going off the trail — causing trail widening and erosion, harming fragile rare plants and species habitat.
At Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve, which is owned and managed by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, there was littering, mountain biking and attempted looting of a Civil War-era quarry trench, as well as trespassing on closed areas of the preserve.
All of those preserves have since reopened to the public with changes that include barriers to keep hikers on trails as well as new signs.
Another, Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve, was closed in July and won’t reopen until at least October because a boardwalk through the maritime forest was being used by visitors to jump onto fragile dunes at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, which compromised the pilings holding up the boardwalk.
The boardwalk was never intended to provide access to the shoreline — and signs advised visitors to stay on the boardwalk — but, in April, local law enforcement alerted preserve management that visitors were using the walkway for just that purpose.
“We erected some fencing at the end of the boardwalk to deter people from wanting to make that jump,” Bulluck said. “That was quickly torn down, and people were just going around it.”
Baker said some of the problem could be from an influx of visitors who “don’t understand the purpose of the facility,” though the park system is “very thankful that people are finding us that weren’t our standard users before.”
“They experience the natural beauty and the connection to nature and the connection to historical sites that maybe they haven’t before, and that has a positive effect on society and on individuals. But it also comes with a small number of people who either unintentionally or intentionally cause damage.”
Added Bulluck, “By and large, I think it’s unintentional. I think it’s just the fact we have greater numbers and ... a group of visitors that just aren’t aware of the importance of minimizing your impact.”
State parks and preservers are promoting “Know Before You Go,” a campaign encouraging visitors to understand details about the sites they want to visit — what they do and don’t offer as far as amenities go — and also to realize capacity for the day could be reached before they arrive.
“Know before you go,” Bulluck said, “and have a Plan B.”
Find details about the various sites and COVID-19 guidelines at www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks and www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-area-preserves.
The crowds and damage come with repair, new signage and staffing costs for the park and preserve systems — neither Baker nor Bulluck had any firm dollar figures — but also with opportunities for community enlightenment.
“As they all belong to us, we also have responsibility for them,” Baker said of the parks and preserves. “It’s up to us to care for the resource, and we count on visitors to do that.”