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Mark Twain Among National Forests Hoping To Be Destinations During Coronavirus Uncertainty

Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
A creek in the Mark Twain National Forest viewed from a trail that is now open.

ROLLA — National forests, including Mark Twain in the Missouri Ozarks, saw big crowds over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, proving to be a popular destination for leisure activities while coronavirus concerns remain.

While forest office staff members are still working from home because of pandemic concerns, the campgrounds, bathrooms and other public areas and facilities started opening to visitors in mid- to late June.

National forests in the region are still accumulating data, but are reporting full campgrounds over the Independence Day holiday and full parking lots during the day.

“We are having a lot of first-time visitors to these rec areas,” said Chris Woods, a recreation officer at Mark Twain. “And we’re having some folks that perhaps haven’t been to that particular campground in a decade or two, even. I’m seeing a reconnection to those rec areas and to the land.”

Part of the allure is forests allow people to get out and do something while so many places remain closed and events canceled, said Scott Weber, a member of the Mark Twain Forest Friends, a volunteer group that helps clean up the forest.

Weber said he has noticed an uptick in visitors over the past few weeks.

“When you are out in the middle of a thousand acres, the chances of you actually running into another person is really low. The social distancing aspect of it really isn’t difficult at all,” Weber said.

In southern Illinois, the Shawnee National Forest is reporting attendance that rivals when a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event passed overhead.

“At some of our popular sites, we were approaching a level of visitation we saw just before the eclipse in 2017, which is extremely high,” said Laura Lecher, a recreation officer at Shawnee.

Lecher hopes first-time visitors will make a habit of coming back as summer continues, as well as learn forest etiquette and consider joining volunteer groups that help the forest.

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Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.