Acting National Park Service director talks about what to expect in Utah and why it will vary from park to park

It may go without saying, but acting National Park Service Director David Vela said it anyway:

The safety of park visitors and staffers is the top priority as the park service enters a daunting new era.

At the direction of the White House, the Interior Department is increasing recreational access at national parks, monuments and other sites as quickly and safely as possible, Vela told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday.

To that end, the agency has developed guidelines and a risk assessment matrix with help from the U.S. Public Health Service that will be implemented in collaboration with states and area health authorities. The goal is to expand access at parks while minimizing the risk of coronavirus transmission.

“What you’re going to see, like you see in Utah, is truly a phased approach, and frankly it’s going to be different park by park, even with parks in the same state," Vela said, “based upon the use of that decision matrix, which superintendents have the authority to make decisions around.”

Here is how Vela addressed other questions (edited for length and clarity):

Tribune • We hear these concerns that maybe it’s too soon or you might be putting park staff at risk. Do you share those concerns?

David Vela • We want to make sure that what we do is as safe as possible. In part of our decision matrix we ask: Do we have the proper training? Do we have the proper personal protective equipment? It’s like a checklist. And if, in the course of making those decisions, superintendents believe that, ‘No, we don’t,’ well, then we don’t make those facilities available. ... The pride of the National Park Service is our workforce, and we have a duty and obligation to care for them.

Tribune Will we see a normal national park season this summer? Normal for Utah is pretty crowded.

Vela • That’s the million-dollar question, my friend, what is the new normal? ... We look at worst-case scenarios, especially as it pertains to what happens if we had a COVID-19 positive case within our concession community and within our park community as it pertains to housing. How do we shelter in place? How do we quarantine in place? And if we have a full contingent of seasonal employees and we have that worst-case scenario, how are we going to be able to effectively take care of those employees who [test positive or get sick]? ... We rely heavily on our seasonal staff to augment summer operations, in about every portfolio, especially on the visitor services side, and on the fire and on the law enforcement side. ... You may have facilities that aren’t going to be available, but the footprint will be. So it will be a different visitor experience and it will be a different normal that we’re going to need to own and, frankly, mitigate. This gets to the value and importance of making sure that visitors know what to expect when they get to the park, making sure that visitors go to the park’s website [ahead of time].

Tribune In normal times, Utah parks, especially Zion, are crowded and it’s hard to picture decent social distancing on trails like Angels Landing or River Walk. Will there be a thought to limiting the number of people who can be in a park at one time? Is that a possibility?

Vela • What we’re looking at in the second century of the National Park Service is what does the visitor experience look like? [Zion Superintendent] Jeff [Bradybaugh] has been doing a great job working with the gateway communities and our state partners and our tourism partners to get a better sense for what that looks like, short term and long term. Jeff is on the cutting edge of some of that thinking. But social science is really going to help guide a lot of that conversation as to expectations. The worst-case scenario, in any situation, is the prospect into the future of degrading a resource for which visitors come to enjoy. ... But here’s the key: Working with our our partners, our gateway communities, our tourism community will continue to serve us well as we look at the second-century visitor experience. But again, a lot of it’s going to be local dynamics and relying on those superintendents to really address those interests.

Tribune • At Capitol Reef, the core area for now is closed, but officials reopened the majority of the park, while at Bryce, the core area is what’s now open to the public with the larger outlying areas currently closed. It’s interesting that we have these two parks not very far apart doing things so differently.

Vela • A lot of it’s going to depend upon the concessions community. Concessions vary on what is open by way of stores and restaurants, based upon their staffing level. The same thing applies to us. Not all parks have the same level of staffing. Our reliance on volunteers is extremely important, too. So a lot of what we’re going to continue to make accessible is going to be dependent upon our staffing levels, which would include volunteers. And that’s why you’re going to see that variance between the two parks.