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Science and Innovations

Tourism During COVID-19, Part Two: National Forests

Coconino National Forest

Tourism has declined throughout much of Arizona because of the pandemic, but that’s not the case on national forest lands. Officials say record numbers of visitors came to forests around Flagstaff, Sedona, and the Mogollon Rim this summer to camp and hike in places where it’s easy to keep a safe physical distance from others. But, the spike in forest visitation also had some downsides. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Coconino National Forest ranger Matt McGrath about some of the problems connected to the increase.

Tell me what visitation has been like on the Coconino National Forest this past summer.

Use has been the highest anybody here has ever seen. I’ve been here two years but some of my folks have been here for twenty, and more people out in the woods than ever before. That goes for our developed campgrounds, also, when they opened up later in the summer, but then also the dispersed use throughout the forest. Larger groups, more groups, people in places that we have not usually seen them in the past.

So this is interesting, because we know that visitation has actually been down at state parks and national parks. So what 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 feel pretty comfortable that they can get away. Even if it’s with their bubble, their small group, or their family unit, even if they have 20 people, they don’t need to be near anybody else…. Also one of the other things is that folks don’t have a lot of other options on how to entertain themselves.

Can you talk about some of the impacts that that increased visitation has had?

Essentially the biggest impacts are trash and human waste. One of the things we’ve been struggling with is 1) cleaning up those messes after people leave, but then trying to get out in front of the educational aspect of it. One thing we’ve seen, we saw this from very early on in the season, is a lot of folks who are brand new to a national forest. 98 percent of me absolutely loves that, that’s fantastic. That’s what we want. We want to connect people to public land and get new people outside. However, with that inexperience comes a lack of education and awareness. So we wind up cleaning up a lot of that trash… Also down in Sedona, one of the issues they’re dealing with is very unprepared visitors. The forest down there has seen a lot more search and rescues—a lot more rescues, frankly. I know that’s true for Yavapai County and also up here Coconino County….. And then, just with the sheer volume of people, one of the most popular forms of recreation up here on the rim it seems is UTVs or ATVs, and a lot more of those buzzing around the forest… We’re fortunate here on this district to have a lot of cultural resources that folks don’t know are there. It’s hard to tell it’s there, especially if you’re driving over it… Those are some of the serious impacts that we see with increasing illegal UTV off-read use.

What do you want visitors to know going into the fall and winter about visiting on the Coconino National Forest?

I think the most important thing for folks to understand is there are going out into the woods, out into the wild and they need to be prepared…. We think the use is going to be pretty high again next year. We don’t know if it will be as extreme as this year. Really a lot of that depends on what society looks like next year… New folks to the outdoors, hopefully they had a great time when they were here and they’ll want to come back next year. So we think they’ll still be a little bit of an uptick in our average visitation. We’re not going to have more people here working for the Forest Service, so how do we use the same amount of people and manage this increase in use is something that we’ll be spending the winter trying to come up with some good solutions to that.

Matt McGrath, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Great, thanks for having me.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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