Thirty-four Wisconsin state parks and recreational areas closed for three weeks will be able to reopen as temperatures increase across the state.
Gov. Tony Evers directed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to reopen parks on Tuesday, setting their reopening for May 1.
Evers ordered the closure of around 40 state parks and recreational areas April 10, citing overcrowding that could hasten the spread of COVID-19, mounting trash, dwindling cleaning supplies and vandalism.
"Outdoor recreation is important for both physical and mental health, and I know how important it is to Wisconsinites to get outside and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources and spring weather," Evers said in the release. "With a few adjustments, like closing one day a week for maintenance and reduced hours of operation, folks should be able to get outside and enjoy our parks safely and respectfully."
The closures included some of the state’s most popular hiking and camping destinations, all in southern and southeastern Wisconsin.
The select parks and forests will reopen Friday "under special conditions to help minimize overcrowding, allow for social distancing requirements, and to promote a safe and enjoyable experience for staff and visitors," according to the governor's press release.
In a media briefing Tuesday, DNR Secretary Preston Cole said the agency would be present to enforce those conditions.
"Law enforcement and other staff will be making sure that people will be paying attention to social distancing," he said.
DNR acting parks director Mark Aquino said that would involve local staff identifying key entrance points to parks.
"We will have staff stationed at those key entrance points. When necessary, we'll be implementing for the temporary closure to entry to those parks until visitation goes down a little bit and then reopen," said Aquino. "We'll make every measure possible to try to make sure that these temporary capacity-based closures are as short as possible while still implementing the goals and objectives of that strategy."
Staff will also don personal protective equipment when appropriate. Aquino noted they've been directed to limit visitors to 75 percent of capacity for sites as identified in their master plans, adding they're also making changes specific to certain properties based on their layout and location of parking lots.
Popular parks that will reopen include Devil’s Lake, Governor Dodge and Kettle Moraine.
The following parks will remain closed:
- Gibraltar Rock state natural area
- Pewit’s Nest state natural area
- Parfrey's Glen state natural area
- Dells of The Wisconsin River state natural area
Cole said some parks don't accommodate social distancing in their layout, such as the width of trails. Aquino said the design of those state natural areas were intended to congregate people on smaller parts of the property to protect the special resources on those properties.
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State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, said some residents did not take social distancing to heart earlier this month when some parks saw thousands of visitors in one weekend.
"I expect all of us in Wisconsin to be a lot smarter about it this time than we were last time," he said.
Starting Friday, admission will be charged to access the public spaces. Annual stickers can be purchased from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week by calling 1-888-305-0398. Annual passes are not available at individual properties. The DNR had announced on Twitter in March that park entry would be free.
Cole said individual day passes posed problems with uncertainty in the number of people visiting parks, as well as whether they would be able to utilize such passes if properties were experiencing high traffic. He added that the agency's current system doesn't accommodate online purchases, but they're actively working to set up an online system.
Hunting and fishing is allowed, and DNR boat launches are accessible at open state properties. Restrooms at all locations are closed, which raised questions for accommodating visitors. Cole said the DNR is asking people to use restrooms before they visit.
State Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, said Tuesday he's grateful the DNR is reopening parks after previously criticizing their closure. However, he questioned the agency's move to close some sites once a week for maintenance, as well as close restrooms.
"If you have a whole bunch of people visiting a place, we have human needs," said Allen.
The Republican lawmaker said he wrote a letter to the agency recommending the DNR post signs to remind people to wash their hands and follow social distancing guidelines. The DNR's Aquino said staff had observed people congregating close together around restrooms, adding their design doesn't accommodate social distancing.
Many state parks and forests will see reduced hours of operation from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily instead of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Properties will be closed Wednesdays for maintenance.
Changes in hours and maintenance do not apply to northern forests, flowages, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and Wild Rivers. Those properties would include the Brule River State Forest, Chippewa Flowage and Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest.
All trails are open to the public, including the Ice Age Trail. State trail passes are required for those age 16 and older for biking, horseback riding and in-line skating on some trails.
Special events will be canceled and camping will be closed until May 26. Shelters will remain closed until that date and refunds will be issued. A limited number of remote campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis at some properties including:
- Brule River State Forest
- Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area
- Dunnville Wildlife Area
- Flambeau River State Forest
- Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest
- Governor Knowles State Forest
- Meadow Valley State Wildlife Area
- Tiffany Wildlife Area
- Van Loon State Wildlife Are
- Willow Flowage
The following parks are likely to temporarily prevent additional visitors:
- Copper Falls
- Devil’s Lake
- Governor Dodge
- Governor Nelson
- Harrington Beach
- Hartman Creek
- High Cliff
- Kettle Moraine Southern Unit
- Lapham Peak
- Perrot, Rib Mountain
- Whitefish Dunes
- Willow River
Editor's note: WPR's Andrea Anderson contributed reporting to this story.