By Carlos Morales
At the entrances to Big Bend National Park, visitors will now be met with barricades, signs and park rangers telling them the sprawling 800,000-acre park is now closed to the public.
Big Bend National Park is temporarily closing to all visitors beginning April 3, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The park announced the new measure Friday morning. The park-wide closure is the latest restriction park officials are enacting—previously the park had limited services and reduced camping to day-use only.
“It’s a big decision and we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it at the park,” said Tom VandenBerg with Big Bend National Park. “But we do feel like we did the right thing.”
Entry to the park won’t be allowed, except for staff, residents and authorized personnel. Through traffic will also be prohibited.
VandenBerg says park staff are still working although “some of our jobs have changed.” Employees at the park, he says, are deep-cleaning park facilities–including shampooing carpets—while practicing social distancing.
Beginning in March, park staff put restrictions in place—at first they closed all park headquarters and park entrances and eventually limited the park site to day-use only. Despite the partial closure, VandenBerg says the public, including locals and a lot of out-of-state visitors were still coming down to the park.
“I think people were kind of zeroing in on this area as a place to come and practice extreme social distancing,” says VandenBerg. “There was concern among park staff and the residents of our gateway communities, they were seeing an increase in visitation over the last week or so—it was a little unnerving.”
According to VandenBerg the park has only one ambulance and a handful of EMTs on site to help with any emergency. The nearest medical facility is Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, a roughly 2-hour drive from the park’s main headquarters. Alpine’s hospital is a 25-bed facility that local health authorities say would quickly be overwhelmed if a coronavirus outbreak were to reach the region.
“We often think of being really isolated out here and really safe out here, says VandenBerg. “But we’re safe as long as the virus isn’t spreading through here. And if that were to happen, it would kind of be a scary place to be, because help is so far away and so limited.”
As of Friday, approximately 135 of the 419 sites in the National Park System are closed or are not offering visitor services, according to the National Park Service. Big Bend now joins Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks, which have all closed out of coronavirus concerns. In Texas, Guadalupe National Park remains partially closed to visitors, while sites like Palo Alto Battlefield and the Lydon B. Johnson ranch have closed.
There are, however, a handful of sites in the National Park Service system that remain open, as the government has yet to issue a national shutdown of the country’s national parks.
The National Parks Conservation Association is urging people to not visit parks and is also calling for all National Park sites to close to the public. In a statement, NPCA President and CEO Theresa Pierno said “it’s troubling” that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt hasn’t made the decision to close national parks.
“To deal with this public health crisis, so many are seeking refuge in our national parks,” said Pierno in a press release. “But the conditions in our parks make this no longer an option. When it’s no longer possible for staff to protect their health, the health of the visitors or the resources they manage, it’s time to close the national parks. And that time is now.”