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Maine Closes Popular State Parks, Encourages Cooped Up Residents To Recreate Closer To Home

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
People head into Maine's Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal with their dogs, Sunday, March 29, 2020.

With many businesses closed across the state due to measures meant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, residents in search of activity are hitting the great outdoors. And there are a lot of them - so many that local, state, and national officials were forced to close some beaches and parks across Maine last week.The state is encouraging residents to stay a bit closer to home, and to look at different kinds of recreational opportunities if they want to hit the trails.


The parking lot at Bradbury Mountain in Pownal had quickly filled up by mid-morning on Saturday, as warm weather and blue skies brought out hikers and bikers and cyclists from across the region.


Sandy Peters, of Harpswell, says after several days spent at her house trying to socially distance from others, she arrived here early to get outside and see family.


"We met up with our daughter," she says. "She has two little twins, little one-year-olds, and a little three-year-old. So, getting some exercise."


We're just parking cars where we can, and people are enjoying the park," says park manager Chris Silsbee. Silsbee says with businesses closed, big crowds have flocked to Bradbury in recent weeks.The park has even opened up additional parking near its campground to try to accommodate them.


"The past few weeks, we've seen, like, mid-summer use here at Bradbury," Silsbee says. "A lot of people, they're not working. Schools are out, just like a typical summer here would be in Maine. People are getting out and enjoying the outdoors while they can."


Despite the increase, Silsbee says visitors have generally been able to spread out along the dozens of miles of trails here.


But increased visitation has overwhelmed other parks and beaches across the state, with officials concerned about whether visitors can keep their distance on packed trails and beaches. The crowds led several towns in southern Maine to shut down beaches for the foreseeable future. Acadia National Park also closed.


On Thursday, the state took a similar step, closing several beaches and coastal parks from southern Maine to the Midcoast until at least April 8. Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal says the decision was hard, but necessary, as the influx of visitors made it difficult to ensure proper social distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19.


"So if people are trying to pass each other on those trails, they're not keeping a six-foot buffer between themselves and other people," Beal says. "So in some places, it really is almost impossible to uphold those kinds of recommendations."

Beal says the state will continue to monitor visitation at the state parks that remain open. And if overcrowding persists at other parks, the state says it may become an issue requiring "additional measures."


"We really don't want to have to close any more parks," Beal says."And this is where we have to ask for the public's help in making sure that these very popular places aren't being overutilized, and we aren't seeing the kind of crowding that we've seen at some of these other parks over [last] weekend, and in the coming weeks. Because if we can, we do want to continue to let people access them."


At Bradbury Mountain State Park, some visitors said they hoped other parks wouldn't have to close. Mark Liimakka of Pownal says Bradbury is like his backyard. He comes out early with his bike all the time.


"I've been out here for a couple of hours now," Liimakka says. "And the parking lot was empty when I got here. Now it's getting pretty full. So that does concern me. Because I spend a lot of time here."


Karyn Thomas, of Pownal, says it's been easy for her to maintain her distance from others along the wide swaths of trails here. But she also understands why officials have been forced to take action at other public spaces.


"Our daughter lives in Chicago, and they're having beach parties and raft parties with the boats out there," Thomas says. "Well, if people are going to do that, then I don't blame city officials for closing it, if people aren't going to adhere to what the guidelines are. Here, people seem like they are adhering to the guidelines. So it seems fine to me."


And the state agriculture department is encouraging residents who want to go outside to look at other recreational opportunities - just ones that are closer, or less crowded, such as public lands and land trust trails. 


And if possible, says Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal, keep your trip relatively brief. That way, she says, all residents can get some time on the trail, while still maintaining their distance.