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During COVID-19, Americans rushed to see their public lands, and continue to do so

When COVID-19 forced shutdowns of movie theaters, restaurants and malls, Americans started to spend more time in the great outdoors. That started a trend that could impact Arizona’s public lands.

The pandemic led to a surge in camping, hiking and other outdoor pursuits.

Although foreign visitation to national parks dropped off for a bit, Americans turned out to explore nature and continue to do so.

"I think it’s one of the many ways in which COVID permanently changed America," said Aaron Weiss, of the Center for Western Priorities. "It forced more Americans to get outdoors, to enjoy their public lands, and so they’ve discovered, hey, that’s really great."

But visitation means more trash, more traffic and crowded trails.

Because most agencies that manage public lands are underfunded, the rise in visitation could impact them for years to come.

"Americans still love their public lands, they are loving them in record numbers, and that does create the risk in some cases of loving our lands to death," Weiss said.

He says that lawmakers will have to look for new approaches to manage those lands in the future.

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Ron Dungan was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2024.