If you choose to trade social distancing in your home for social distancing in the great outdoors, it might be best to explore some lesser-known recreation areas.
Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest officials say overcrowding at some of the region’s most popular trailheads during the COVID-19 pandemic could force them to close or restrict the forest to public access.
“We don’t want to be put in a situation where we have to close off public land,” said Matt Zumstein, the ranger in charge of the Carson District. “Right now we’re trying to keep our disbursed areas open for people to enjoy and utilize, as long as they do so responsibly and adhere to the governor’s orders.”
Some of the issues include people defying social distancing orders, illegal parking and littering.
Well-known and more urban trailheads like Whites and Thomas Creek in the Galena area, Hunter Creek in northwest Reno and Kings Canyon in Carson City have seen large increases in visitors.
This creates problems for the Forest Service, particularly in emergency situations like fires and search and rescue operations where large vehicles need to access tight areas. Zumstein said they’ve already had instances where illegally parked vehicles were blocking emergency access points or even private driveways.
Don Harris, a captain with Humboldt-Toiyabe law enforcement, said they’re seeing upwards of 100 vehicles per day at the Thomas and Whites Creek trailhead alone.
Crowds like that make it difficult to socially distance, Harris said — particularly in the parking lots.
“By congregating in those areas it creates a bigger chance for COVID-19 or any other cold, virus or potential infection to spread,” he added.
The crowds also strain local emergency resources and place personnel in risky situations.
In Alpine County, California, local officials requested Humboldt-Toiyabe close its campgrounds for overnight stays because they have limited law enforcement and rescue resources.
Similar restrictions haven’t happened elsewhere in the forest, but they could if incidents continue, Zumstein said.
Forest service law enforcement officers are currently ticketing illegally parked vehicles and they’re verbally warning groups that aren’t socially distancing. Harris said his officers have the authority to ticket those who defy social distancing orders — a fine of up to $5,000 or up to six months in jail — though nobody has been cited yet.
Despite a fire ban on all Humboldt-Toiyabe land, campfires have also been an issue. The forest service issued a fire ban in late April in an attempt to stave off potential fire starts during the pandemic.
For firefighters and first responders who’d have to respond to a wildland fire, it’s virtually impossible for them to social distance.
Recreating outdoors is still allowed and even encouraged — as long as people continue to socially distance and limit group sizes to fewer than 10.
But forest officials are encouraging people considering going outside to consider some of the region’s lesser-known areas and trailheads.
Also be mindful that forest facilities are currently closed to the public, including restrooms at trailheads. You should be prepared to pack out any waste or trash you bring in to a recreation site.
Harris said they’ve gotten reports of people relieving themselves behind closed restrooms and piling up garbage next to dumpsters.
“I know people are tired of being at home … but I don’t think we’re through this, it’s going to take some patience and unity across the public to stick to the plan and get through this,” Zumstein said.
Sam Gross is a breaking news reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal who covers wildfires, emergencies and more. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com.
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