Governor Closes 40 Parks Due To Vandalism and Crowds

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

April 11, 2020

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A sign notifies the public that the state park has been closed due to COVID-19.

A sign notifies the public that the state park has been closed due to COVID-19.

Wardens from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources blocked the entrances to Devil’s Lake State Park Friday. A snow fence blocked the entrance to nearby Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area. 

Just a few days earlier people were parking on the road and rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder on the paths, in clear violation of any social distancing rules. However, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, says Gov. Tony Evers used “dubious reasoning” when he closed 40 state parks and recreational areas this week.

Nass has long been a vocal critic of the governor. In an email to an Evers staffer he said closing the parks “is only one flashpoint in a growing revolt to how the COVID-19 response has been handled in Wisconsin.” 

The latest Marquette University Law School Poll showed 86% of respondents approved strong measures by the government to restrict social gatherings, while just 10% thought it was an overreaction.

Outdoor activity was designated as essential when Evers announced his “Safer At Home” order. State parks made admission free and were being promoted as a great place to spend time. Indeed, many parks were setting attendance records with the warmer weather. 

“Unfortunately, growing difficulty with ensuring social distancing compliance, dwindling cleaning supplies and mounting trash are some of the challenges faced by our state parks staff,” Evers said. “We have to address the growing public health and safety concern and protect Wisconsinites.”

In an email to a DNR staffer, Nass indicated state employees should be used to clean the parks since they are still being paid.

“State employees are still being paid and have yet to face the same economic consequences of Governor Evers’ orders as many of my constituents now facing unemployment, furloughs or reduced compensation,” Nass wrote. “Picking up the garbage and increasing observation of state parks to reduce vandalism are all common sense steps that could easily be taken by state employees to avoid these closures, unless there is some other undisclosed agenda behind this decision.”

In the 2015 state budget, Republicans, including Nass, voted to eliminate all state general purpose revenue for state parks. Parks continue to be funded by fees from campers and visitors, which are not being collected at this time.

Similar issues have happened around the country, as 43 states have closed at least some state parks. Most national parks have closed their campgrounds. In Wisconsin, many county and city parks are still open, but playground equipment and other spaces that could attract high usage are closed.

Evers’s notice ended with a warning: “If the public does not follow social distancing guidelines and vandalizes property, more state parks may have to close.”

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