Big Bend National Park could begin phased reopening in June

FAR WEST TEXAS — Big Bend National Park will remain closed for at least the next month and could begin a “phased reopening” as early as June 1 if certain public health criteria are met.

Spurred by concerns over the coronavirus, the wide-open 800,000-acre park first closed over a month ago. The closure began in stages with park officials first limiting ranger services and reducing camping to day-use only. Since the park’s complete closure, officials have been drafting a preliminary document outlining when and how the public will be able to visit park facilities and trails. As it’s written, the plan calls for Big Bend National Park to open gradually and in varying stages.

Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker says the region’s limited access to healthcare is a major factor when determining how to reopen. Krumenaker, who’s been with the park for nearly two years, says he’s in continual contact with public health officials whose input on the reopening “is critical.”

“This is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Krumenaker told Marfa Public Radio. “There’s no right answer, but there’s a whole bunch of wrong answers.”

Big Bend National Park is roughly 100 miles from the nearest hospital, and Krumenaker says that’s one of the major considerations that went into drafting the park’s reopening plan. The park estimates it takes at least two park rangers to help transport an injured or sick visitor to Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine. The one ambulance the park has would be out of service for almost half a day, according to Krumenaker.

“If we have to transport a single person who has COVID symptoms to Alpine, we lose our EMTs, we lose our ambulance basically for 14 hours. And then if we have a second case, then what do we do?”

Big Bend National Park has been more cautious than other national parks, some of which have limited their services but never formally closed to the public. The federal government never issued a national shutdown of the country’s national parks, instead leaving the decision up to individual superintendents.

“The cautious approach is the most sensible one here,” said Krumenaker.

As the park eyes reopening in the next few weeks, the staff is keeping track of the number of coronavirus cases in the region and across Texas. According to Krumenaker, roughly 70 percent of the park’s visitors are from other corners of the state, so he wants to keep tabs on what’s happening in urban hubs like San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.

“As long as there’s no COVID here, we’re great,” said Krumenaker. “The problem is we’re so vulnerable if it does come here — we can’t lose sight of that while everyone else is in their zeal to open so fast.”

After the Memorial Day weekend, park officials will revisit the tiered reopening plan with the health authorities who have been advising them.

How the park could reopen

As it’s drafted, the tentative reopening plan — which could change depending on an increase in coronavirus cases — is made of five distinct stages. Officials would wait 14 days between each phase to determine whether to move forward with the next step in reopening or scale back, according to a document shared with Marfa Public Radio.

Each phase of opening requires there aren’t any upticks in coronavirus cases, that Big Bend National Park has sufficient staff on hand — including law enforcement officials, medical technicians, dispatch and maintenance — and that the park has appropriate personal protective equipment needed to maintain the park’s facilities.

Phase 1A/1B

The park would move forward with its preliminary stages to reopen if certain criteria are met, like a downward trajectory of coronavirus cases. At these stages, visitors would have access to limited paved roads for scenic driving and cycling. If there is enough personal protective equipment, restrooms would be provided along various routes.

In these stages, park staff will practice social distancing and are encouraged to wear a cloth face covering as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visitors must practice social distancing and “are strongly encouraged to wear a cloth face covering” as well.

The park’s visitor centers would stay closed during these phases, and no trail hiking will be allowed. The park would remain only open for day use.

Phase 2

Phase 2 is likely where Big Bend National Park will begin its plans for reopening. At this stage, which the park released details about earlier in a press release, the park will open front country areas. Trails accessible from paved roads would open for day-hiking, including Lost Mine, Window, Emory Peak and Santa Elena Canyon.

In this stage, park staff will continue to practice social distancing and are encouraged to wear a cloth face covering. Visitors must practice social distancing and are encouraged to wear a face covering as well.

The park’s visitor centers will stay closed during this phase, information booths will be set up in certain areas, and park rangers will be present throughout the park to answer questions.

There’s no camping at this level, and the park would remain open during daylight hours only. The river would open for public and commercial day use. The Boquillas Port of Entry would remain closed.

Phase 3

At this level, the park is accessible for day-use in frontcountry, backcountry and limited river use. Only the Marufo Vega, Hot Springs Canyon, and Mesa de Anguila trails will be closed.

The Chisos Basin Lodge will open for limited overnight lodging, but park visitor centers will remain closed. Cloth face coverings for employees and visitors are still encouraged and social distancing measures must be practiced.

There’s no camping at this level, and the park remains open during daylight hours only. The river opens for public and commercial day use. The Boquillas Port of Entry would remain closed.

Phase 4

At this level, the park maintains previous stages of access and allows overnight backpacking and camping, but only for sites that can be reserved online.

Park visitor centers could open for the first time, and outdoor informational kiosks may be staffed during peak hours. The park may begin interpretive programs but only as social distancing and federal guidelines allow. Hotel guests and campers are able to stay up to five consecutive nights in the park.

While most roads accessible to the public will open at this level, Hot Springs Road will remain closed. Additionally, backcountry camping will be available by reservation, as will camping at the Chisos Basin campground (dependent upon volunteer camp host staffing availability).

All reservations will be made online and no in-person camping permits will be issued. The Boquillas port could open depending on approval from Customs and Border Protection.

Phase 5

At this level, federal, state, and local public health officials advise that most restrictions can be lifted on public activity.

All park facilities normally open for the season will be accessible, but some long-term operational changes may be in place for safety. All trails will open and overnight backpacking/ camping and backcountry or zoned camping is allowed with a permit.

Both the Chisos Basin and Panther Junction Visitor Centers will open. All campgrounds may be open at this stage, and interpretive programs may continue as long as they’re within federal guidelines. The Boquillas port could open depending on approval from Customs and Border Protection.

While the park moves to provide more services at this level, officials may make long-term operational changes out of concern for visitor and employee safety.