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UNH study: New England’s national forests faced challenges from influx of people during first COVID-19 summer

Long traffic lines were one of the impacts of a major increase in visitors to New England national forests in the first summer of the pandemic.US Forest Service

New England’s two national forests saw a 60 percent increase in visitors as people sought out fresh air and open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic summer of 2020, posing challenges for officials who want to protect the land but also provide recreational experiences for people, University of New Hampshire researchers say.

The total number of visitors rose by about 2 million, from an expected 3.3 million to 5.3 million, at the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and Maine, and the Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forest in Vermont and New York, said Michael Ferguson, assistant professor of recreation management and policy.


Ferguson said that for decades visits to parks and protected areas have been increasing steadily, and so have their impacts. In the summer after the COVID pandemic first slammed into the United States, that steady increase turned into an “extremely dramatic surge.” Most of the new visitors came from out of state.

The increased visits led to a variety of impacts, including crowding, scant parking, traffic jams, facility closures, site and trail degradation, erosion, and water quality problems, Ferguson said.

Conflict between visitors was a key problem during that tense summer, researchers found. That included disagreements over perceived violations of COVID-19 safety measures like not wearing masks or maintaining physical distancing. “It’s the conflict between visitors you need to manage” most of all, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said one solution could be more law enforcement, but a more effective solution would be to educate visitors on “proper behavior and decision making.”

The researchers found that about 10 percent of visitors said they would probably never return because of issues they’d experienced, Ferguson said.

“It’s a very difficult situation right now for these resource managers,” said Ferguson. He said the officials have to deal with a major influx of visitors while trying to “manage all of this to provide high-quality experiences.” The research did not look at the summer of 2021.


Among the solutions being discussed at the national level is limiting access to the natural areas, he said. One possibility is use of a reservation system or permitting to manage access to specific high-use sites. Some national parks have tried a reservation system.

Ferguson, along with colleagues from the university and the US Forest Service, laid out their findings in a study in the journal Society and Natural Resources; and two different studies in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. Funding for the research was provided by the Forest Service.

Martin Finucane can be reached at