Sites closed as BLM promotes getting ‘some fresh air’

By Scott Streater | 03/31/2020 01:14 PM EDT

A Bureau of Land Management campsite in Oregon.

A Bureau of Land Management campsite in Oregon. Greg Shine/BLM/Flickr

This story was updated at 6:01 p.m. EDT.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has prompted the Bureau of Land Management to slowly begin closing some public facilities in the West even as it continues to promote visitation.

In the past week, BLM has announced the closures of recreation facilities, visitor centers and campgrounds in Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and California.


BLM New Mexico announced yesterday it is temporarily closing dozens of campgrounds, recreation and off-highway vehicle areas, and public restrooms "to help limit the spread of COVID-19."

BLM Nevada also announced yesterday it is temporarily closing "offices and visitor centers across the state"; it had earlier closed several public recreation facilities such as the Sand Mountain Recreation Area and the Winnemucca Sand Dunes, in response to guidance from state public health officials regarding the virus.

In both announcements, BLM struggled with the dual priorities of keeping public places open where people can "get some fresh air," while also acknowledging its role in slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

"It is important for us to provide access to outdoor spaces where people can walk, exercise and get some fresh air," said BLM New Mexico Director Tim Spisak in a statement. "However, we must do that while ensuring the health and safety of our employees and our visitors. These closures will help us keep people safe."

BLM Nevada Director Jon Raby added in a statement, "While visitors are still welcome to enjoy BLM’s trails and open spaces, we ask they follow the guidance provided by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and their local health authorities."

The BLM closures in Nevada and New Mexico followed last week’s announced shuttering of "developed recreation facilities" in Oregon and California.

"The BLM is doing what we can as part of the whole of America response to the coronavirus," Jose Linares, the acting director of BLM’s Oregon-Washington office, said in a statement announcing the closures. "Although we have vast open spaces we continue to want people to use, we can’t stress enough that everyone listen to local officials and practice safe social distancing."

This has led to criticism from some conservation groups that worry about the safety of public employees. It’s also sparked backlash from House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has blasted the decision to keep public lands open in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

It has also raised questions about the safety of visitors — and not only because of the spread of the highly infectious virus.

Raby, the BLM Nevada director, warned visitors to BLM sites to "keep in mind that if you get injured, medical response may be delayed or fewer resources may be available since many health care professionals and first responders are busy dealing with COVID-19."

BLM said in a statement that "closing facilities and some campgrounds" is the result of working "with state and local public health officials" to "limit the spread of COVID-19."

The bureau is "focused on protecting the public, volunteers, and employees by following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and working closely with state and local public health authorities to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission, including any state or local requests to close campgrounds," it said.

But it continues to promote visiting public lands during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has waived entrance fees at BLM facilities, as well as at open National Park Service sites and national wildlife refuges overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A BLM tweet Saturday promoted visitation to public lands as "a great way to practice" social distancing "and get some fresh air" during the health crisis. The message also urges visitors to "please be responsible!" and follow CDC guidance to keep at least 6 feet from others.

Another BLM tweet Sunday stated that to support President Trump’s "efforts to slow the spread & be a good neighbor, the BLM works with local & state health authorities & @CDCgov to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission while delivering our services to the greatest extent practicable."