Local leaders shut down popular recreation sites, campgrounds in Grand Staircase, San Rafael Swell, other hiking hot spots

(Lennie Mahler | Tribune file photo) Hikers follow the silty Paria River near the Utah-Arizona border on Sept. 26, 2016. The popular slot canyon east of Kanab is among the many BLM sites Kane and Garfield counties closed to recreational use on Tuesday to limit the spread of the coronavirus in these rural southern Utah communities.

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The clampdown on outdoor recreation has spread to two more southern Utah counties, where area officials have become increasingly alarmed with the spring influx of visitors streaming onto scenic public lands, particularly the San Rafael Swell and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, fearing that they could unwittingly spread the coronavirus and overwhelm limited medical capacity in remote parts of the state.

On Tuesday, Kane and Garfield counties issued emergency orders restricting access to public lands for recreation. In effect until at least April 22, Kane’s order was far more sweeping, covering all public lands in the county. Garfield’s covers 11 popular sites, such as the Burr Trail, Calf Creek, and “all other recreation sites where proper social distancing practices cannot be achieved.”

Garfield’s order is intended to avoid endangering the county’s first responders, often volunteers, who get called out to search for people lost or injured on public land, according to County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock.

“In those canyon areas, how can we expect our people to go rescuing folks that get in there and need someone to save them. How do you give them [personal protective equipment]? You can’t,” Pollock said. “They have to go in and physically handle people. How can you justify that?”

Swelling numbers

With spring’s arrival, many Wasatch Front residents have headed or plan to head to desert destinations to camp, off-road, mountain bike and hike on public lands. While such activities may seem consistent with social distancing guidelines, growing cadres of officials are insisting would-be visitors heed Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s directives and stay home.

It’s clear, however, that some have not been listening.

“We have anecdotal reports from people who live near the access points of steady streams of campers heading out to [Emery County’s] San Rafael Swell,” said Bradon Bradford, director and health officer for the Southeast Utah Public Health Department. “I understand the desire to get outside, but we feel that right here and right now is not the right time or right place.”

Two weeks ago, his department, covering Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, issued an emergency order prohibiting nonresidents from staying in any overnight accommodations or camping anywhere in those three counties, although day trips remain OK. Violating that order is a class B misdemeanor, but many people were ignoring it last weekend in the San Rafael Swell, a favorite retreat filled with astonishing sandstone formations hardly two hours from Salt Lake City.

“It’s a paradox to say go out and enjoy these open spaces and use social distance. When 10,000 people are doing it, the social distance isn’t as good as you thought. The right thing to do is stay home,” Bradford said. “We have limited resources, and it’s a lot of land. People will do it and not necessarily face consequences.”

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Tourists explore the Toadstools, formations located in an area removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The popular hiking spot 45 miles east of Kanab is among the many BLM sites Kane and Garfield counties closed to recreational use on Tuesday to limit the spread of the coronavirus in these rural southern Utah communities.

On Friday, the Emery County Sheriff’s Office dispatched a search and rescue team to find two visitors who had gotten lost while hiking the popular Little Wild Horse Canyon in the Swell’s southeastern reaches. Coloradans are under a stay-home order through April 26, but that didn’t stop the woman from Montrose from traveling to the Swell with her 11-year-old son. She told deputies she thought the trip would be OK since they planned to spend the night in Hanksville in Wayne County, where it remained legal for out-of-towners to stay.

It should be noted that Westerners have received mixed messages about recreating on public land during the pandemic. On the one hand, the Interior Department had announced the public was welcome on public lands during the epidemic and even waived fees at all national parks. On March 17, several southern Utah county commissioners, including all six from Garfield and Kane counties, posted a public letter to the state’s governor, downplaying the coronavirus risks and calling for a “return to normalcy.”

But much has changed in the past three weeks as COVID-19 infections and deaths soar, and it’s clear normalcy won’t be coming back around for weeks if not months.

The National Park Service closed most of it destinations one by one. Capitol Reef is alone among Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks to remain open after Monday’s closure of Bryce Canyon, in Garfield County. And Utah’s state parks are closed to everyone but those who live in the counties where the parks are located.

‘Unintended consequences’

These closures could have "unintended consequences," said Tara McKee, program manager for the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation. "It could be that you funneled people to areas that are open."

That makes maintaining social distance harder on busy trails. Yet now, more than ever, people are craving the outdoors after weeks of staying home.

"There is a certain unhealthiness to being cooped up. For people suffering with depression, this is making it so much worse," McKee said. Outdoor recreation can help people maintain mental health in these challenging times, but opportunities are becoming increasingly restricted.

Herbert on Friday urged Wasatch Front residents headed south for the weekend to cancel those plans. His directive, for now, is voluntary.

While the park service and Fish and Wildlife Service can close their destinations at a moment’s notice, the Bureau of Land Management, which administers most of the land in Utah, is in no position to do that. There are too many access points and not enough staffers to keep people out.

While tourism traffic is down in southern Utah, the BLM’s typical spring hot spots have been as busy as usual for this time of year.

“Our traditionally popular recreation areas, including campgrounds, were full last week and remain full today,” said Christian Venhuizen, spokesman for the agency’s Color Country District. “We encourage visitors to follow the guidelines and directives established by federal, state and local governments.”

But, on Tuesday, Kane and Garfield, in consultation with the BLM and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, took some of the most aggressive action of any Utah local governments to limit recreational use of public land. Garfield’s order targets recreational users at 11 sites, regardless of where they live but does not apply to ranchers or miners.

Garfield’s neighbor to the south, Kane County, banned recreational use by nonresidents on all BLM land. Kane continues to allow camping as long as campers are in groups no larger than 10 and the groups camp at least 50 yards from one another.

“The Kane County Hospital has limited resources that are strained during Easter weekend and other weekends during this time of year due to recreational travel under normal circumstances,” the county’s order states. “A significant increase in demand on the medical services of the Kane County Hospital would cause a significantly increased risk of harm over the next few weeks and months as they anticipate the number of COVID-19 cases in Kane County continuing to increase.”

The state reported 42 COVID-19 cases in the Southwest district Tuesday — Kane says it has three of them — and three in the Southeast district.

The order also imposes a 14-day self-isolation order on all part-time residents who return to Kane County, which hosts several rural subdivisions filled with second homes whose owners hail from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.