Grand Canyon National Park is an icon. It attracts visitors from all over the world who flock to the South Rim and other viewpoints within the park that offer a glimpse of the famous Canyon.
As the pandemic continues to impact our lives, when social distancing is still the name of the game, reopening this national park right now represents a grave threat to health and safety.
People will flock to overlooks
While some parks have wide-open spaces and plenty of room for visitors to spread out, most of them have standard, iconic destinations within their boundaries where visitors naturally congregate.
At the Grand Canyon, for example, it simply defies logic and human behavior to think that people who have traveled long distances to see the Canyon will not park and stand in clusters at popular overlooks, or traverse the same trails, bringing them in close contact to each other.
In addition, park partners are calling on the park to remain closed. The Navajo Nation, which borders the park, is still dealing with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country. They have urged the national park to remain closed until their positive COVID-19 numbers have flattened. These calls seem to have been ignored.
Visitors and employees placed at risk
It is too soon to open Grand Canyon National Park. Visitors from states across the country are already traveling to the park and this places NPS employees, concession workers, volunteers, residents in gateway communities, and visitors at risk of exposure.
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We can hope that people will assume responsibility for their own safety by following CDC guidelines and reading up on local opinions surrounding the reopening.
But there are no guarantees that this will happen. And it is possible that national parks will become a flashpoint for COVID-19.
The inconsistencies among national parks as they undertake the ill-advised process of reopening is utterly mind-boggling and defies rational explanation. There is obviously a lack of clear guidance and leadership emanating from the Department of the Interior and National Park Service in this life-threatening crisis.
We need to safeguard public health
Where is the national guidance? Where is the concern for human health and safety?
In this time of crisis, we believe that the absolute priority of the state of Arizona, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service should be to safeguard employee and public health.
Secretary Bernhardt should not be pushing the Grand Canyon, or any other national parks, to reopen.
He is jeopardizing the lives of Americans across the country.
Rob Arnberger was superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park and retired from the National Park Service as the regional director of National Parks in Alaska. He lives in Arizona and is a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.