Trail traffic is way up at South Platte Park this spring, and so is the tension. With much of society shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, South Platte Park, the 880-acre oasis in west Littleton, …
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Trail traffic is way up at South Platte Park this spring, and so is the tension.
With much of society shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, South Platte Park, the 880-acre oasis in west Littleton, has seen visitation soar. From March 18 to April 18, the park saw a 64% increase in pedestrian traffic and a 93% increase in bike traffic over the same period last year, according to South Suburban Parks and Recreation.
That's about on par with a busy summer holiday weekend, said Skot Latona, the park's manager. Add social distancing guidelines, and some visitors are getting edgy.
“We're seeing more anxiety and more territorial behavior,” Latona said. “Everyone's relaxing and enjoying the park, but there's tension.”
The edginess isn't significantly different from other high-use periods, Latona said. Visitors are territorial about their activities: bicyclists conflict with walkers, and others neglect to leash their dogs.
“People feel like each other are a danger,” Latona said. “Everyone's perceptions are centered around what they're doing, and it's a little more constant now.”
Visitors are also increasingly trespassing into closed areas of the park, like wildlife habitats around Cooley Lake.
“Wildlife need places to behave naturally and not get pushed around,” Latona said. The park is important habitat for a wide variety of native and migratory birds.
Debates have broken out on the park's social media pages about whether visitors should wear masks. Latona said he doesn't want to wade into a hot topic, but said: “the recommendations are out there. When you're on a narrow bridge on the bike path, there's no way you can get six feet away from others.”
Social distancing is also pushing people farther apart — and off the trail. While the park tries to keep natural-surface trails about 40 inches wide, some are being trampled as wide as 12 feet.
“The grass is starting to grow, and I'm not sure it's long-term damage,” Latona said. “The level of use along the lakes is more concerning. Beaches are being worn in, and anglers are all over. It's having an effect on the birds and fish.”
As the pandemic plays havoc with South Suburban's budget, the park is also operating with a smaller staff — just six, down from 12, with the rest furloughed. Latona and the others still on duty are doing their best to stay on top of park maintenance. The park will bring on two seasonal bike rangers a little earlier than normal to help patrol trails. If visitation stays high, the park will likely bring in parking attendants to turn away motorists as parking lots fill up.
It's too soon to say when the park can resume its popular programming and camps, Latona said, but staff are eager to do so.
Meanwhile, nature carries on. Swallows are returning, and building their characteristic mud nests under bridges. More water is flowing out of Chatfield Reservoir, filling ponds and wetlands, to the delight of frogs and amphibians. Nesting birds like orioles and warblers are back.
“Nature is a place to find comfort more than ever,” Latona said. “People need a place to get out, and that's what we provide. We just ask people to be kind. Everyone's going through a lot of stress these days, so try to be understanding.”
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