LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — A recent poll shows that a majority of Pennsylvanians surveyed consider time spent outdoors to be “essential” to their wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are steps visitors can take to safely enjoy the outdoors while minimizing their negative impacts on natural spaces.
The poll, conducted by the Center for Survey Research at Penn State Harrisburg and presented by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, found that “four out of five Pennsylvanians who visited parks and trails believe that time spent outdoors is essential to their physical and mental health during the pandemic.”
The DCNR report also notes that Pennsylvania state park visits in 2020 increased 26.6% from 2019.
Kelly Snavely, director of marketing and communications at the Lancaster Conservancy, says that the Conservancy’s staff observed “almost a doubling” in the number of visitors to their preserves, as well as about twice the number of people visiting their preserve pages on their website.
Spending time outdoors can have notable benefits for both people and the environment. Snavely says, “Just spending time in nature, you see such incredible data that shows that stress goes away, anxiety goes away.”
When the weather was warmer, many people enjoyed socializing outside. The Mayo Clinic says, “When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected.” (The clinic notes that it’s still important to wear a mask when unable to socially distance, even when outdoors.)
Snavely says that many people have been able to spend time together outside, “and we found that overall, people did a really good job of practicing social distancing, wearing masks, not congregating.”
And for the environment — “Getting people outside and making sure that everyone has access to natural spaces is the only way the conservation movement and our fight against climate change and habitat destruction is going to win,” Snavely says.
However, the increase in visitors may also lead to some negative effects on natural spaces. A report from Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful says that reports of illegal dumping increased 213% in 2020 from the previous year.
Snavely says it’s important to practice Leave No Trace ethics when spending time outdoors. This involves staying on designated trails to avoid harming the ecosystem and not leaving behind any waste, whether it’s a drink cup, a dog waste bag or a banana peel.
Planning ahead and practicing proper safety is also important, says Snavely. “Right now it’s really important that we don’t put increased pressure on our local EMS services and that we continue to let them focus on the pandemic,” she says.
Snavely urges people to bring first-aid supplies and water when visiting outdoor spaces. She also encourages wearing appropriate clothing and footwear and planning ahead by reviewing trail maps. “Make sure that you know where you are and someone else knows where you are,” says Snavely.
“Outdoor spaces served a critical and essential role during this past year while we’ve all been trying to deal with and get through the pandemic,” Snavely says.
For more information about the Lancaster Conservancy and its trails and preserves, visit lancasterconservancy.org.