Sunday, April 5, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part IX): Wilderness and other consumptions of the rural

Cover of spring tourism supplement to Newton County Times, dated March 25, 2020.
This cover is now obsolete as the businesses in Newton County, Arkansas, relying on
tourism dollars are shutting down because of closure of the 
Buffalo National River in the face of
the coronavirus crisis and need to self-quarantine/shelter in place. 
A topic that crops up with increasing frequency in rural scholarship is the phenomenon of "consuming the rural." That is, one thing urban folks value about rural places is the opportunity to visit them, to be tourists there, to be consumers of rurality.  Sometimes what urban dwellers value is small-town charm, cute shops, nice restaurants, and such in places like the Hudson Valley or Long Island, if you're a New Yorker.  In the region of northern California where I now live, this might mean a trip to the Sierra-Nevada foothills to one of many "preserved" gold rush towns like Nevada City or Sutter Creek (these are actually post-Gold Rush in some sense, I guess, because they tend feature Victorian architecture).  Wine tasting is also a popular activity in these California locales, as in many other rural places in regions around the country.  I've written about some of those places here, and I've written a few blog posts in the coronavirus era about urban residents rushing to these places to escape the fast spread of coronavirus, sometimes associated with urban density.

But something else urban dwellers value--as do many of their rural counterparts--is wilderness, which some conflate with rurality.  Indeed, "wilderness" is a tag or label I added to this blog not long after I started Legal Ruralism in 2007.  I theorized wilderness in relation to rurality here.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic takes me back to that topic, not least because of the impact it is having on my own home county, Newton County, Arkansas, which I have written about frequently here.  You'll get a sense of the place by reading posts at the link above, including here, here and here.  Bottom line:  it's a place with 8000 residents, most of them low-income.  It's a persistent poverty county, meaning it has had a high poverty rate since records of poverty began to be measured in the 1960s.

In the last two to three decades, however, Newton County's economy has become increasingly dependent on ecotourism, specifically that associated with the Buffalo National River, the first national park in the United States, whose headwaters lie in the county.

And therein lies the coronavirus "rub," if you will:  What happens (or should happen) in a place like Newton County when coronavirus is striking more populous places?  Well, apparently, a number of folks (relatively speaking) from around the country thought Newton County would be a good place to hide out, which eventually led full-time/year-round residents to protest--at least on FaceBook.  Here is the coverage by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Bill Bowden:
The largest Buffalo National River resort has closed for a month because of overcrowding in the national park. 
"People aren't respecting the social distancing," said Austin Albers, co-owner of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca. "People are flooding the area in droves and honestly freaking out the local community." 
* * *
Albers said there have been hundreds of cars parked at some trail heads, and the license plates indicate they've come from all over the country. 
The story quotes Arkansas Representative Keith Slape (R-Compton): 
It's not your typical tourists. They are from Nevada, New York and New Jersey. Looking for a place to hide out until it blows through. Locals can't get groceries for tourists buying it up. They are also concerned that the virus may be brought in to them.
Interesting re groceries.  My mother in Newton County has had better access than I to hand sanitizer and yeast--both products in short supply in California for several weeks.  So, I'm not sure about the purported shortages in Newton County.  Also interesting re: New York, New Jersey and Nevada license plates.  I can't recall ever seeing license plates from ANY of these places in Newton County, which isn't to call into question Slape's veracity--but if it is happening now, it's relatively novel.  Mostly, Newton County and the Buffalo National River are regional destinations.  Also FYI, Slape was the Newton County Sheriff until a few years ago, so he knows it well and, in fact, lives relatively close to Ponca, near the river's headwaters.

Another issue, of course, is the local economy.  Establishments like the Ozark Cafe, a real institution on the town square in the county seat, Jasper,  remained open until earlier this week, though only for takeout.  Of course, the cafe's owners need the income, just like the canoe concessionaires and rental cabin folks do, but the fact that such establishments are open makes the county more likely to draw visitors, while also providing a service and income to locals.

The Buffalo Outdoor Center is of course more squarely serving visitors.  Albers, the co-owner quoted above, explained what his business was doing in light of coronavirus:
Albers said he took no new canoe rentals last week, and only provided canoes to people who had made reservations earlier or were staying in the resort's 27 cabins or 14 recreational vehicle spaces. 
Albers said the Buffalo Outdoor Center store will close Wednesday and remain closed until May. 
"We've shut down the canoe rentals, shuttles for the river operations," he said Monday.
Albers is taking no new cabin reservations for April, but cabins will be available to people who made reservations earlier. 
"We're allowing people who have current reservations to keep those reservations," he said. 
They can check in remotely, go to their cabin, self quarantine or go for a hike, he said.  
Albers said overcrowding became an issue over the weekend. 
"We're trying to be proactive in the community and also protect our employees and the guests, but the guests aren't protecting themselves," said Albers. "What has happened has scared our employees."
Here's a follow up story from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and here is coverage from the Harrison Daily Times, owned by the same media company that owns the Newton County Times.  A quote attributed to the National Park Service follows:
This emergency closure is for the maintenance of public health and safety and is in direct response to guidance from state and federal health officials.  The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, communities, and partners is our number one priority.
The Harrison Daily Times story continues:
BNR were from out of state. Those visitors could be coming from “hot spots” for the virus outbreak across the country. 
In addition, the governor said some people were congregating in large groups against an Arkansas Health Department directive that people should avoid social gatherings with more than 10 people present. 
So, [Governor] Hutchinson said he was recommending to the Department of the Interior that the BNR be closed until the crisis subsides.

The National Park Service (NPS) said it is working service-wide with federal, state and local authorities to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and will lift the closure as soon as possible. 
Let me put what has happened in Newton County in context by referring to what is happening nationally.  The Washington Post reported earlier this week that seven National Park Service employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as many national parks have remained open and folks have flocked there in recent weeks. Here's an excerpt from that story, leading with a quote from Stephanie Roulett, a spokesman for the National Park Service:
The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well.  
The Washington Post story by Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni continues:
Last week, the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, said an employee tested positive. It was closed March 24. At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend, a resident in the park’s housing complex on the South Rim tested positive.

Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.
Note the theme re the Grand Canyon that is similar to what happened in my home county:  local folks and local officials pressing the national entity (Department of Interior/National Park Service)  for the shut down.

Also, here's a breaking LA Times story by Kurtis Lee about more recent closures of national parks in the southwest--and consequences of same, including the struggles of travelers to get back to their homes in light of various travel restrictions. 

Anne Helen Petersen wrote this piece for Buzzfeed under the provocative headline, "This Pandemic is Not Your Vacation." An excerpt follows:
Wealth is not the cause of every concentrated outbreak dotting the United States. But it’s the common denominator of so much of its spread outside of major urban areas. It’s the reason why so many of the coronavirus hot spots in the Mountain West — Sun Valley, Idaho; Gunnison County, Colorado; Summit County, Utah; Gallatin County, Montana — overlap with winter playgrounds for the wealthy. The virus travels via people, and the people who travel the most, both domestically and internationally, are rich people.
In Idaho’s Blaine County, home to Sun Valley, more than half of the residential properties are second homes or rental properties, and more than 30,000 people fly into the regional airport during ski season alone. As of March 31, 187 people in the county of 22,000 have tested positive, including local emergency room physician Brent Russell. Two people have died. The town’s small hospital has two ICU beds and a single ventilator.
Petersen quotes what Dr. Russell told the Idaho Statesman:
People come here from all over the world. Especially this time of year. When I’m in the ER, I get people from New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Seattle. Every week there’s people from those places. Most likely someone from an urban area or multiple people from urban areas came here and they just set it off.
Here's an NPR story on some local government entities' decision to shut down short-term rentals.  Here is an example of that out of Whitefish, Montana in the Flathead Valley.  Here's a Forbes piece on the wealthy fleeing to vacation homes, which are often in rural areas.  Here's a story from Vox re: how coronavirus is likely to hit rural areas later--and also harder, the latter due to a lack of healthcare resources.

I must admit that, when it became clear that my family's spring break trip to Europe (starting April 4) would be canceled, our first thought was to swing through national parks in the West and Southwest to salvage the opportunity for family travel time together.  That said, we gave up that notion less than 48 hours after we conceived it.  That was a good three weeks ago, which is apparently much earlier than some folks gave up.

Lastly, while this is not about the wilderness end of the rural-urban continuum, it is another story of rural gentrification and the consequences in the age of coronavirus, this one for Europe.  So many more similar stories I could link to, so little time.  In any event, here's to wilderness--and our ability to safely consume it, with appropriate respect to locals--again soon.

Post script from April 13, 2020, Los Angeles Times:  "Wildlife is reclaiming Yosemite National Park: ‘The bear population has quadrupled’"  This story features extraordinary photos.

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