Trail systems serve as the lifeblood for Durango outdoor recreation. Keeping those networks open during the coronavirus pandemic is important to public officials, but trail closures are a real possibility because of users who do not follow public health ordinances.
Durango city councilor Chris Bettin went for a mountain bike ride in Horse Gulch last Friday. What he saw caused alarm. He witnessed groups recreating in large numbers, people from various households grouped together and many not following recommendations to remain a minimum of six feet apart.
Bettin spent the weekend having conversations with fellow city councilors, interim city manager Amber Blake and Trails 2000 executive director Mary Monroe Brown. Tuesday morning, he sent a letter to outdoor groups and community leaders to spread a message that failure to comply with safety ordinances could result in the closure of trails.
“When I was out at Horse Gulch, observationally, a lot of folks hadn’t seemed to have absorbed the message yet that social distancing is important to contain the spread of COVID-19 amongst us, even if we are healthy and can get out on the trails,” Bettin said. “I don’t want this to come across as a threat, more of a, ‘Hey, can we all help each other do this right?’ We want to get through this time in a healthy way as much as possible.”
Within hours Tuesday, Durango athletes took to social media to help spread the message from city council. The hashtag #solofordurango became the common theme.
“People riding in groups and ignoring social distancing guidelines are jeopardizing our ability to keep trails open to the public,” Fort Lewis College cycling team member Cole Fiene said. “If our community loses access to our trails, our community is going to suffer even more. I think the fact that city councilors are sending out this message shows that they are very seriously considering closing trails. Stop riding in groups now! Ride solo or don’t ride at all!”
Trails 2000 spent the weekend posting signs at trailheads, conducting outreach and produced guidelines along and videos regarding safe trail practices. Bettin said he has seen some improvement but wanted to get the message out on social media to reinforce the stakes.
“We take social distancing guidelines very seriously and ask all trail users to do the same,” said Trails 2000 board member David Bruzzese. “Not only while they are on the trail but also at the trailhead of trail junctures. It’s imperative every trail user be responsible for their actions. We’re in this together. Our actions affect the safety of other people and their actions affect the safety of us. Our trails are a critical aspect of life in Durango and all of Southwest Colorado. So many people depend on our trail networks to optimize physical and mental health. They are essential in this challenging time.”
Mayor Melissa Youssef said Durango is lucky to have organizations such as Trails 2000, the Durango Devo and FLC cycling programs as well as various groups across running and hiking communities to help spread the message. She said trail use is a very serious topic right now, and the city has worked with Durango Police Department chief Bob Brammer as well as parks and recreation director Cathy Metz to increase more foot patrols to take note of parties not following public health guidelines.
If continued violations of the recommended health ordinances are reported, trail use could be cut off.
“I don’t even want to go into what would happen if we had to close trails,” Youssef said. “It would be extremely unfortunate for everyone in our community if we had to take steps that other communities have had to do. We are trying to be more visible in talking to people, reminding them to do their part and to keep distance so everyone can enjoy all the amazing natural amenities around us. Getting outside is one thing that helps us all relieve pressure right now. We need to make sure everyone follows the rules. Some communities have been forced to close trails. We very much hope it doesn’t come to that and that our community will come together and unite like we usually do and work together to keep trails available for all of us.”
Wildlife closures on some trails have led to more congestion on trails currently open. Bettin said he saw more people in Horse Gulch than he ever had previously during his mountain bike ride last week. Similar to the closure of ski areas across Colorado, Youssef said it is important for large groups not to accumulate in one area and instead disperse into open spaces. Trails 2000 asks people to recreate outside less frequently, go during times of the day in which less people are on trails and to not recreate somewhere that already has a full parking lot.
With a larger number of people using trails, it then has created the problem of passing and how to do so safely.
“We’ve spent so much time as a trails groups in our country teaching people to stay on the trail,” Monroe Brown said. “It’s hard to imagine saying that the best way to pass someone is to step off trail, but that’s essentially what we need to do. Step off the trail, allow someone to pass.”
Public officials have stressed that guidelines apply to all outdoor recreationists and not one group or sport. It also applies to pet owners, who must keep dogs leashed and properly dispose of animal waste. Officials encourage people to have polite conversations with each other when they see large groups together or those not practicing distancing precautions.
“People complain to us as city councilors about people not wearing masks in public places or seeing people who are not working to help stop this spread,” Youssef said. “What we are telling people is that it is OK to give friendly reminders to people. Say, ‘Hey, let’s remember to try to work together.’ People can do that in a friendly way without being rude or confrontational.”
Following the recommendation of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who has extended stay-at-home orders until April 26, those going outside are encouraged to wear masks. While many who go outside may choose to take down the face cover when solo, it is important to put on a mask when near other people.
Bruzzese said trail use should be considered a privilege that could be taken away. He encouraged anyone dealing with allergies who may need to blow their nose or itch their eyes to stay home along with anyone else who is otherwise sick.
Bettin said the same precautions should be taken on the Animas River Trail as well as the Durango Dog Park.
“We would really love to keep the open space open during this time because we understand it is so important for people’s health and well being,” Bettin said. “If large groups of runners, bikers and hikers from different households continue to be encountered, we really have to consider closing. There are not a lot of recreational options right now because we’ve closed everything. Trails are one of the last things available to the community to use as a resource for outdoor activity. We need people to become role models of social distancing and trail guidelines. If we can do that, we can keep trails open. If we are unable to do it, I think we have to take a really hard look at making sure we are doing what is needed to protect the community from being overwhelmed by this virus.”