Jordan W. Smith: Utah’s outdoor spaces can help us reconnect. At a distance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) As the coronavirus grips the nation, people are taking to the trails in search of a therapeutic safe space. People get outdoors along Jacks Peak Trailhead above the Salt Lake Valley on Friday, March 20, 2020.

Restaurants that once bustled every night of the week are now open for takeout only. The sports venues, shopping centers, gyms and museums that used to fill our nights and weekends are now empty. And many religious gatherings, which serve as a cornerstone to so many Utahns’ lives, have been halted. The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to have a massive impact on the social lives of Utahns.

While many of the social interactions that are essential for our economy have started to transition online, we still need real social interaction to feel alive. Many Utahns have begun to explore local outdoor recreation opportunities as an alternative way to have family activities, see others, and learn something new.

Local parks, greenways, trails and other outdoor recreation resources are an absolutely vital component of our everyday lives. This is especially true for us Utahns, whose identities are so closely tied to the outdoors and the freedom outdoor spaces provide. We might spend the vast majority of our days inside, but it is our outdoor spaces that provide us reprieve and perspective.

The unprecedented situation that we now find ourselves in has provided us with an opportunity to (re)connect with the outdoor spaces close to our homes. To think about the real value that local parks, greenways, trails and outdoor spaces provide to our lives. These spaces are critically important to the psychological, social and physical well being of Utahns. They provide, for free or for very minimal cost, many of the same benefits that we have become accustomed to paying for.

Municipal, county, state and federally managed outdoor recreation settings are often thought of as “golden geese.” The management of these settings come at minimal costs, either through taxes or use fees, but provide countless direct and indirect benefits that ripple through our individual lives, the well-being of our communities, and the economic health of Utah.

We can consider ourselves more fortunate than many other states navigating their way through this pandemic. Utah’s abundance of outdoor recreation settings provide many opportunities to stay connected with what used to be “normal life,” with what we value so much, and with what for many of us is essential to who we are. Stay close to home, think about the importance or your local outdoor spaces, recreate responsibly, maintain social distance and reconnect.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah State University Department of Environment and Society) Jordan W. Smith, Ph.D., director, Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism

Jordan W. Smith, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University.