Tourism Throughout COVID-19, Half Two: Nationwide Forests
Tourism has declined in much of Arizona due to the pandemic, but this is not the case in the national forest areas. According to official figures, record numbers of visitors came to the forests around Flagstaff, Sedona and the Mogollon Rim this summer for camping and hiking where it’s easy to keep a safe physical distance from others. However, the increase in forest visits also had some disadvantages. Melissa Sevigny from KNAU spoke to Coconino National Forest ranger Matt McGrath about some of the problems associated with the climb.
Tell me about the visit to Coconino National Forest last summer.
The usage was the highest that anyone has ever seen here. I’ve been here for two years, but some of my people have been here for twenty years and more people in the forest than ever before. This also applies to our developed campsites when they opened later in the summer, but also to the use that is distributed throughout the forest. Bigger groups, more groups, people in places we normally haven’t seen in the past.
So this is interesting because we know that the state parks and national park visits actually took place. So what do you think is going on there? Why have the national forests become so popular?
I think one of the things that made the national forests popular almost immediately is the idea of being able to get away from other people. You hear about state parks, generally 50 acres, 100 acres, here in Flagstaff we have 850,000 acres. People are pretty comfortable that they can escape. Even if it’s with your bladder, small group, or family unit, even if you have 20 people, you don’t have to be around someone else…. Also, one of the other things is that people don’t have many other ways to entertain themselves.
Can you talk about some of the effects of this increased visit?
Essentially, the biggest impacts are garbage and human waste. One of the things we struggle with is 1) cleaning up this clutter after people leave but then trying to get out of it before the educational aspect of it. One thing we saw that we saw very early on in the season is a lot of people who are brand new to a national forest. 98 percent of me absolutely love this, it’s fantastic. We want that. We want to connect people to public land and bring new people outside. However, with this inexperience comes a lack of education and awareness. So we clean up a lot of this junk… Even down in Sedona, very unprepared visitors are one of the issues they are dealing with. The forest down there has seen a lot more searches and rescues – frankly, a lot more rescues. I know this is true of Yavapai County and Coconino County up here as well. And then, given the crowd, one of the most popular forms of recreation up here on the fringes seems to be UTVs or ATVs, and a lot more from the ones buzzing around in the forest … We are fortunate enough to have many cultural resources here in this district that people don’t know are there. It’s hard to tell it’s there, especially when you drive over it … these are some of the serious effects we are seeing with the increasing illegal use of UTV off-reads.
What would you like to tell visitors about visiting the Coconino National Forest in autumn and winter?
I think the most important thing people need to understand is that they need to go into the forest, into the wilderness and be prepared for it. We believe usage will be pretty high again next year. We don’t know if it will be as extreme as this year. Really a lot of it depends on what society is like next year … New people outdoors, hopefully they had a great time being here and they will want to come back next year. So we think they will still go up a little bit on our average visit. We won’t have any more people here who work for the forest service. So as we put the same number of people in and manage this increase in usage, we will spend the winter finding some good solutions to that.
Matt McGrath, thank you very much for talking to me.
Great thanks for having me