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Outdoors Enthusiasts Expect Pandemic Interest In Parks, Trails To Last Long Term

Courtesy of Elise Keeney

As we wrap up our Sense of Community series, An Ozarks Checkup, we take a look at our community’s use of the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic—and how some changes could be long-lasting.

“Think about it this way: here in the Ozarks, here in southern Missouri, we love the outdoors anyway. We really don’t need a reason to go there, but this just gave us more motivation,” said Francis Skalicky, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation here in southwest Missouri. He says that while they don’t have trail count numbers, anecdotally, conservation areas saw an increased use in 2020 during the pandemic.

And the MDC also saw big changes to its educational programs.

“During the pandemic when we couldn’t have in-person programs, we did them virtually. Well, this opened those programs up to a wider audience. All of a sudden, driving distance wasn’t an issue. Even as we go back to in-person programs, which we are transitioning back to, we will probably keep a virtual element to a lot of our programs just because, as I said, it opens up to a wider audience. We want as many people as possible to learn about the things we cover in our programs.”

In Springfield, too, more people have been getting outside. Jenny Edwards is a spokeswoman for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in parks use over the last year, the last 14 months. We actually saw almost an immediate increase in park activity when the stay-at-home orders were released in the City of Springfield. And we know this just because we were seeing much more full parking lots. And the more measurable aspect was that we pick up trash and we were seeing a significant increase in the amount of trash that we were picking up in parks,” said Edwards.

Last year, the Park Board broke records in golf activity and in canoe, kayak and paddle board rentals at Lake Springfield.

“We were seeing such high activity with our canoes and kayaks that we actually wore several of our boats out. So, it was important when we were able to secure a donation from Bass Pro Shops and they donated 40 new kayaks to us just last month,” she said.

Jon and Elise Keeney are among the Lake Springfield paddlers. They bought their own kayaks in July.

“We had been looking at getting kayaks since 2018, probably, and then that [the pandemic] all happened and we couldn’t do anything safely. And so we were wanting to be safe and keep it that way, but also still enjoy ourselves,” said Elise Keeney.

“We had a chance to go out with some friends of ours and we really enjoyed it and realized that was something we could spend a summer doing,” said Jon Keeney.

And they found out firsthand how hard it was to purchase outdoor equipment during the pandemic. All of the stores they visited had very limited stock and the Keeneys ended up buying one of their two boats online.

In addition to paddling on Lake Springfield and Fellows Lake, the Keeneys also spent time biking around the deserted Missouri State campus, which went to virtual classes early in the pandemic. And, they say, they visited nearly every park in Springfield.

“No matter what park we went to, no matter trail we were on, we were running into other people,” said Jon Keeney.

“But also, it was still neat to see people, but not interact with them, I guess. Like, it was our way of seeing people and still keeping ourselves, like, ‘Oh, this is what interaction with humanity is like,’ while also being outside and being able to be safe,” said Elise Keeney.

The Keeneys say they will continue to get outside after the pandemic. They’ve also increased their use of brewery patios around town and have taken their first trips down to the Buffalo National River.

“It’s a weird thing that yes, we were spending a ton of inside our house, like, stuck there with each other with nobody else to talk to, and getting out somehow made it feel more normal and normalized our interactions with each other as a couple, even though we spend 24 hours with each other. Getting out onto the water kind of made it feel normal again,” said Elise Keeney.

Francis Skalicky at the Missouri Department of Conservation points out that more people have spent their vacation time closer to home in the Ozarks.

“When you think vacation, you think far away. You think travel. You think long trip. Because that’s where the cool places are. Well, because of the pandemic, and either budgets were crunched, jobs were changed, schedules were changed, those travel plans were shortened up and they started looking right around at some areas they could visit and they could go hike,” said Skalicky.

And he says that’s good news for conservation.

“You learn more about how complex our outdoors are. How truly wonderful they are. That gets you to appreciate them more. That gets you to realize why we need to care for these things. And all of a sudden, the Department of Conservation has another steward, another family that is helping taking care of the outdoors,” said Skalicky.

“Those of us who work in Parks have felt the love and appreciation from our community. I think we all understand now how important our parks, our trails, our outdoor spaces, our recreation and sports programs are now that we’ve had to go without some of those things,” said Edwards.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.