Brock team analyzes park and trail access challenges during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in outdoor activities.

Demand for outdoor recreation such as hiking, cycling and other nature-based activities has increased dramatically as individuals have found themselves living with an altered work and leisure schedule.

Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre (ESRC) launched the Trail Assets and Tourism Initiative with the Niagara Parks Commission and the Ontario Trails Council. While the partnership began with specific goals, COVID-19 has altered not only life for virtually all Canadians throughout these past few months, but also this important partnership work.

The Trail Assets and Tourism research team has turned its attention to examining best practices for communicating parks and trail use policies to the public.

“The work of the partnership is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic as trails are the lifeblood of park systems and serve as connectors between people, nature and health,” says Garrett Hutson, Brock University Associate Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies and Chair of the Trail Assets and Tourism partnership. “As some park agencies continue to report record numbers of visitors, concisely clarifying and communicating best practices to protect people and the environment are necessary during this unprecedented time.”

As a result of the increased demand, operators of parks and protected areas have been under pressure to re-open their properties. In order to do so, park agencies have a list of tasks that must be completed before visitors can be safely accommodated such as recalling seasonal employees and developing and implementing COVID-19 safety protocols in order to protect staff.

The agencies must then complete all necessary pre-season maintenance work that had not been possible during the previous shutdown stages. Finally, before an agency is ready to welcome visitors, COVID-19 related safety protocols for visitors must be developed and implemented.

Once this is done, agencies face one of the most difficult tasks yet — effectively educating the public of the new policies and guidelines for visiting each specific location. Given the current COVID-19 climate, with many provinces loosening restrictions and enabling increased access to tourism and outdoor recreation, this communication has become incredibly important.

With hundreds of independent park agencies in Canada, visitors have found themselves required to learn the policies of each agency they might consider visiting. For example, a visitor in Ontario may find themselves visiting a Niagara Parks location, an Ontario Parks location and a Parks Canada location — all with their own COVID-19 policies.

“There has been extensive confusion for trail users throughout Ontario as to what trails and parks are open and what safety protocols are in place,” said Wayne Terryberry, President of Ontario Trails Council. “This research project provides extremely valuable information, which will assist trail management agencies communicate and plan in a concerted and co-ordinated manner.”

While it is important for individuals to plan and prepare for their visits to parks and trails, it is the responsibility of each park agency to facilitate that preparation by providing accurate, concise and readily available information regarding the changes in policies and procedures at their locations.

The Trails Assets and Tourism Initiative team examined more than 40 park and trail agency social media and website communications regarding COVID-19. It found that park agencies with an active social media presence and more information on their websites earn better approval and more appreciation from the public.

Given the evolving and changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, park agencies should consider utilizing reciprocal linking with other agencies to a greater degree, to demonstrate a coordinated approach to health and safety recommendations and communications, says Hutson.

With the help of the Niagara Parks Commission, the Ontario Trails Council, and through reviewing other agency COVID-19 communications, the Trail Assets and Tourism Initiative team has put together a list of best practices, which can be found in the infographic attached to this release.

“As restrictions continue to be lifted, our actions collectively, while congregating to some degree in natural and other areas, will determine the trajectory of the spread of COVID-19, which will likewise determine whether natural assets such as parks and trails will remain open for use,” Hutson says.

More information can be found on the websites of the Niagara Parks Commission, Leave No Trace and Ontario Trails.

This story was written in conjunction with John Foster, a Master of Applied Health Sciences candidate and research assistant at the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre.


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