USFS and CSU analyze impacts of COVID-19 on federal campground use

USFS and CSU analyze impacts of COVID-19 on federal campground use

April 27, 2022

The effects of COVID-19 on patterns of campground use, analyzed by researchers from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Colorado State University, will help USFS plan for future outbreaks and for continued public interest in federal campgrounds as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

Over the past two decades there has been a sustained increase in outdoor recreation on public lands, including those managed by the National Park Service and the USFS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, budgets have stagnated, leading to the repeated, long-term delay of planned and unplanned maintenance. The public response to the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated additional challenges to the management of recreation opportunities, especially at Forest Service campgrounds. Campground reservation data provided a unique opportunity for scientists to examine the use of public infrastructure, activity, and outdoor recreation during a pandemic.

Initially, the response to the pandemic was a large decrease in public use of campgrounds in part caused by their closure or delayed opening. The decrease was short-lived, followed by a large increase in use of the campground reservation system. Many of the campgrounds, especially those located near large metropolitan areas or adjacent to National Parks, were fully reserved for much of the summer. Overall, the use of the reservation system was greater than the previous pre-pandemic year.

The incidence of use of the reservation system correlated with the status of the local stay-at-home orders. A rapid increase of reservation system use occurred shortly after mandatory stay-at-home orders switched to advisory stay-at-home around Memorial Day in 2020. Additionally, researchers also noted that when local infection rates increased so did the demand on campground reservations. Reservation system use stayed elevated throughout the summer until just after Labor Day in 2020. This provides insight on how public land managers can allocate resources for campground maintenance and operation to meet demand. The findings were published in January by PLOS One.

It is important to note that this analysis only included the use of campgrounds through the reservation system. It does not include any shortening of trips or walkup usage at the campgrounds.

Key Findings
* After an initial reduction, increased use of the campground reservation system was observed presumably due to camping being viewed as a safe and socially distanced activity in response to COVID-19 restrictions.
* Proximity of campgrounds to metropolitan and National Parks corresponded with increased demand and can inform mangers about where to expect large visitation increases in the future. Potential benefits exist with interagency coordination opportunities and management activities when facing elevated national level recreation demands.
* Significant challenges continue as public land managers work to respond to this increased demand, especially with respect to campground and trailhead infrastructure.
* Increases in campground demand in 2020 caused maximum capacity events that likely fueled an increase in dispersed camping, thus putting additional pressure on localized ecosystem health.

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