Locals are getting fed up with the increasing traffic, crowds and trash at outdoor recreation areas during the pandemic.
“Overcrowding during summer months (has) been an increasing issue due to the growing popularity of Calaveras County,” Sgt. Greg Stark with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office told the Enterprise on Monday. “It is not uncommon for calls for service to rise in respect to the increase of people recreating in the county.”
This summer, out-of-towners appear to be flooding popular spots in the rural Mother Lode region with heightened vigor, with many lamenting a lack of available activities in the city.
Murphys resident Susan Robinson said the traffic, “misbehavior” and trash left at White Pines Lake, Natural Bridges and other public parks each weekend have become “unbearable” and are driving locals away.
“CCWD isn’t doing an adequate job of protecting those water resources,” Robinson said of the Calaveras County Water District, which owns White Pines Lake and its surrounding recreation facilities.
Michael Minkler, CCWD general manager, responded Tuesday that the district has received a few complaints about overcrowding at the lake, and that efforts are being made to improve signage at the location to uphold public health recommendations.
“We have consistently followed the lead of the public health agencies regarding closures of those facilities. The current guidance does not recommend closure of facilities such as those at White Pines Lake and we don’t want to increase concentrations of people at other facilities by independently closing down access to the lake,” Minkler stated. “We strongly encourage everyone to respect social distancing and other public health recommendations.”
Calaveras County Health Officer Dean Kelaita, MD, has not responded to inquiries regarding the potential hazards of crowded outdoor spaces and whether or not they should be reclosed.
Earlier this week, anxieties were amplified with the first COVID-19-related death in the county. There has been an accelerated increase of confirmed cases since late May, with total case numbers quickly approaching 100.
Yet Fourth of July weekend was one of the busiest in recent memory, according to some. The caves at Natural Bridges, near Vallecito, were packed with visitors, very few of whom were wearing masks. Cars spilled out of the parking lot and occupied narrow spaces on both sides of Parrotts Ferry Road. A sign at the park’s entrance advised social distancing, but no officials were present to enforce those recommendations.
New Melones Park Manager Cynthia Davenport, who oversees Natural Bridges, did not respond to requests for comment by press time but told the Enterprise in a previous interview it was difficult for staff to keep out visitors, even when the park was closed. During the stay-at-home order, someone reportedly cut a hole in a nearby fence to gain access.
At other outdoor public spaces, the absence of an authoritative presence has left the growing crowds to their own devices.
Park rangers at Pinecrest Lake in Tuolumne County, which sees an average of 15,000 visitors each weekend during the summer, have refrained from patrolling during the busiest hours for their own health and safety, Stanislaus National Forest spokesperson Diana Fredlund stated earlier this month.
Yet, some authorities are clamping down. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut off vehicle access to a recreation area at New Hogan Lake, which it owns, due to “misuse and overcrowding.”
The Sheriff’s Office, however, does not shut down public spaces, according to Sgt. Stark.