As coronavirus pushes activities to virtual settings, national parks are not immune

Visitation falls this summer as fears of COVID-19 linger

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Trails at Aztec Ruins and Chaco Culture have stayed open, but the visitors centers are closed.
  • Mesa Verde National Park reopened in May, but it is not offering guided tours.
  • All three parks have been able to catch up on some of their maintenance work.

FARMINGTON — Nathan Hatfield has spent his entire career with the National Park Service, typically working in remote, scenic areas. And while his position tends to require that he spend a lot of time at his desk, working on his computer, he says one of the great advantages of his job is that whenever he feels like he needs to take a break from the digital world, he can quickly access the natural one.

"At the park, if I need to go out and stretch my legs for five minutes, I can step outside and be in one of the most phenomenal archaeological sites in the world," said Hatfield, who serves as the chief of interpretation at Chaco Culture National Historic Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

But for most of the past four months, Hatfield, like a lot of Americans, has been working from home as the COVID-19 shutdown continues to dictate that social distancing mandates remain in place. Hatfield is grateful to have a job that allows him the luxury of doing that, but he misses the way those quick strolls around thousand-year-old ancestral Puebloan structures made him feel mentally refreshed and allowed him to refocus.

A visitor to Aztec Ruins National Monument captures a selfie of herself, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, against a backdrop of the West Ruin.

"When you're working from home in Farmington, it just isn't the same," he said. "A lot of us became professional rangers and got into the field because of our love for these special places. We're still doing the work, but we're no longer in those special places. It's been a struggle for me, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is for others."

Not every staff member at Aztec Ruins or Chaco has been teleworking, Hatfield noted, explaining that preservation and maintenance work — as well as protection of the ruins themselves — continues to be done. Although the visitors centers, exhibit areas and bookstores at both properties closed in the middle of March when the shutdown began, the parks themselves remained open and continued receiving visitors on their trails.

"Things were pretty quiet up until Memorial Day, and even then it was very quiet, although it was better," Hatfield said, describing the traffic the parks have seen during the shutdown.

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"It still is quiet compared to normal, but we stayed pretty busy over the (July 4) holiday," he said.

On a typical Saturday over the July 4 weekend, he estimated, Aztec Ruins would see 300 to 400 patrons a day go through its visitors center, and Chaco wouldn't be far behind. This year, Hatfield said, that number was closer to 50, meaning the parks are seeing one-sixth to one-eighth their regular numbers.

The situation is closer to normal at Mesa Verde National Park between Mancos and Cortez in southwest Colorado, which reopened on a limited basis on May 24. Even so, Cristy Brown, the park's public information officer, said Mesa Verde, which normally would be experiencing its busiest time of year, has seen a significant decline in numbers.

The Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, which reopened to visitors in late May.

But she didn't attribute that entirely to pandemic. Mesa Verde's situation has been complicated by the fact that numerous wildfires are burning in the region. She said that some trails at the park that normally would be open, even with the pandemic continuing, have been closed because of the fire danger, and she believes that has impacted attendance.

"We're in extreme fire danger right now," she said.

Brown said the park drew approximately 4,150 visitors from July 3 through July 5, and though she didn't have numbers to compare to from years past, she said she believed that figure represented a sizable decline.

"Normally, we have people backed up to the exit and the on-ramp (of U.S. Highway 160, which runs north of the park entrance)," she said.

A slow return to normal operations

Aztec Ruins and Chaco aren't as close to resuming their usual activity as Mesa Verde is, but Hatfield said they moved into the second phase of their reopening a few weeks ago. While their visitors centers remained closed, both parks now have tables set up and staffed by rangers who are available to hand out brochures and answer questions.

But the ranger-led tours and educational programming that are such an important part of each park's operations remains on hiatus, and the campground is still closed at Chaco.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listens while Chaco Culture National Historical Park Chief of Interpretation Nathan Hatfield talks, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, during a tour of Pueblo Bonito.

"That, in itself, is going to cause visitation to decline," Hatfield said, referring to Chaco's remote location. "It takes such an effort to get there, if you can't stop and stay for two or three days, it's going to cause some people not to go."

The campgrounds are open at Mesa Verde, but Brown said attendance is down, and she attributes that to lingering fears over the spread of the virus and perhaps a desire by some travelers to simply stay home and save money during a period of economic uncertainty.

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Both Hatfield and Brown said the behavior of park visitors has varied in regard to respecting COVID-19 safety measures. Brown said, by and large, Mesa Verde visitors do not wear masks on the park's trails, and she said they sometimes need to be reminded to maintain their distance from others at some of the park's more popular sites.

The Visitors Center at Aztec Ruins National Monument remains closed because of the COVID-19 shutdown, but the park's trails are open.

Hatfield said the willingness of Chaco and Aztec Ruins visitors to practice social distancing seems to be good, but not many of them abide by the mask-wearing protocol. He said visitors typically do pull on a mask when they approach a ranger, but as soon as they set off down the trail, those masks come off.

All three parks have used the slowdown in traffic caused by the pandemic to catch up on their maintenance work. That's especially true at Aztec Ruins and Chaco, Hatfield said.

"That maintenance work, it really is almost never ending," he said. "As soon as you get caught up, there are new things that come to a head."

Over the past four months, the Cultural Resource Office at Aztec Ruins has been remodeled, and workers this week are resealing the trail that runs from the visitors center to the Animas River.

At Chaco, a good deal of work has been done remodeling the employee housing and improving the mesa-top access road that serves the park's utilities and water station.

The Cultural Resource Office at Aztec Ruins National Monument has been remodeled during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Both parks have seen reductions in manpower because of the pandemic. Hatfield said Chaco and Aztec Ruins have had to delay the arrival of their seasonal rangers — something that made it easier to work on the employee housing at Chaco, he said — while at Mesa Verde, Brown said approximately 50 seasonal interpretative employees have not been brought aboard because the park is not offering staff-led tours.

Turning to a virtual experience

Not all the changes at the parks located throughout the region have been bad. Hatfield said Aztec Ruins and Chaco have ratcheted up their social media presence considerably, and he pointed to the success of a Facebook Live event at Aztec Ruins that was held in conjunction with the recent summer solstice. More than 4,000 people viewed the program, he said — a number that dwarfs the number of actual visitors who typically come to the parks to participate in that program.

An exterior wall of the Great Kiva is pictured, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, at Aztec Ruins National Monument.

"It allowed folks who most likely will never have the opportunity to come to Aztec Ruins or Chaco to come to our sites and have that virtual experience," Hatfield said, adding that at least one viewer checked in from Hong Kong.

The past few months also have seen a noticeable increase in participants in the online Junior Ranger program at Aztec Ruins. Hatfield said the program was started by his predecessor several years ago, and Aztec Ruins was one of the few parks that had such a program in place when the pandemic started.

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When a child completes the online Junior Ranger program, Hatfield said the software generates an email alert to the park, and the participant is sent a Junior Ranger patch to commemorate the accomplishment. The program has been so successful, he said, that Aztec Ruins is now regularly receiving calls from staff members at other parks inquiring about the structure of the program.

"We've sent out close to 500 patches," Hatfield said.

Efforts like that are allowing staff members at Aztec Ruins and Chaco to continue to reach park enthusiasts, even if they can't have personal contact with them, Hatfield said — and that could serve as a model for the future.

A sign at Aztec Ruins National Monument informs patrons about park rules while the Visitors Center is closed.

"How we interact with the public is going to look very different in 2020 and maybe even beyond," he said. "But we're a resilient agency, and we've dealt with changes and government shutdowns before. … We'll get through this one, too. We'll adapt. That's how we survive."

Hatfield said the reopening of the visitors centers will be the next step in the process for his two parks, with the reopening of the Chaco campground following that. But neither of those actions will take place without some careful consideration, he said, explaining that maintaining the safety of park employees and visitors is the primary concern.

"When the state starts to reopen their campgrounds, that's something we'll pay close attention to," he said.

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Hatfield acknowledged that Navajo Nation officials have expressed a strong desire to see national parks on or near Navajo lands closed as they try to limit the spread of the virus among their population. That was a message that was conveyed directly to the secretary of the interior, he said, and it is one that the leadership at Chaco and Aztec Ruins has heard.

"We're very mindful of what's happening on the Navajo Nation," Hatfield said. "We want to be respectful to our Navajo neighbors. We're going to be very careful when we make that decision to open up the campground."

A spotted owl peeks out an upper doorway of the Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

With other parks around the country experiencing the same decline in visitors as Mesa Verde, Chaco and Aztec Ruins, Hatfield addressed the notion that that may not necessarily be such a bad thing. Americans are sometimes accused of loving their national parks to death, and the pandemic has given some of the more popular destinations a reprieve from years of intense traffic.

"That's happening," he said. "If we truly wanted to protect Aztec Ruins and Chaco, we would put them in a bubble and close them off to the public."

Obviously, that isn't going to happen, Hatfield said, but many parks around the country have been allowed to return to more of a natural state over the past few months, and that has had some benefits.

"The decline in visitation is a little bit of a silver lining in that it's keeping those places a little bit less impacted," he said. "That's not a horrible thing for parks."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.