Craig Macholz hunched in a small lawn chair near Missoula’s Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trailhead on April 25, soaking up the sun as he waited for a buddy to return from a trail run. Cars and trucks filled the surrounding parking lot and lined the roadside for more than 100 yards beyond. Pairs of bikers zipped by. Individuals and families with small children wandered past, giving each other wide berths.

Macholz had just finished a run of his own, his first since the coronavirus pandemic put Montanans in near-lockdown. As a software engineer, Macholz was lucky to be able to work from home. But until now he’d felt too guilty to leave his wife and two kids behind in the name of exercise.

“It was just so beautiful, so peaceful,” he said of his Saturday outing. “I forget how wonderful this time of year is. With the larch leaves, you can see very far, and the trails are just spectacular. It’s fun to be out.”

As much as he enjoyed the fresh air, Macholz was keenly aware that others around the country don’t have the luxury. COVID-19 prompted widespread closures of public spaces nationwide over the past five weeks, from coastal beaches to national parks. Ski areas throughout the Rockies ended their seasons early, with some resorts pleading for state officials to give them even one more day. In Montana, concerns about the health and safety of gateway communities prompted late-March closures of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and the U.S. Forest Service opted to shut down developed sites and rental cabins across the state’s national forest system.

That the public is increasingly turning to open spaces in this time of crisis is abundantly clear. Officials in southern California are already rethinking recent decisions to reopen beaches after a warm weekend back drew large crowds. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry last week defended reopenings in Florida after reports of similar crowding drew national criticism. The glut of vehicles at Missoula’s Rattlesnake trailhead last weekend is of a piece with a spike in public lands traffic in Montana. Pat Doyle, marketing and communications manager for Montana State Parks, noted a 61% increase in visitation to state parks during March 2020 over March 2019.

“Places like Makoshika State Park in Glendive, out in Dawson County in eastern Montana, we’re seeing numbers that kind of rival their summer numbers,” Doyle said. “People just want to get outside. … They want to be outside, they want to regain some sense of normalcy in their lives.”

In that way, the pandemic is underscoring a point many wildland advocates, government officials and health care professionals have touted for years: Outdoor recreation, indeed nature itself, is critical to mental health. The therapeutic potential of exposure to nature has prompted numerous scientific studies around the world, and nonprofits across the U.S. have worked with the National Park Service and other partners over the past decade to develop criteria for localized “ParkRX” programs that, according to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, “involve health or social service providers encouraging people to spend time in nature to improve their health and well-being.”

According to Sara Boilen, owner and chief psychologist at Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish, some studies have shown that the effects of a 30-minute daily walk are equivalent to the effects of the antidepressant Prozac. She said she and the nurse practitioner at her practice often recommend regular walks to clients before considering prescription medication.

“There’s all the athletic and physical pursuits that we can do in nature, but there’s also just being in the presence of nature that is so healing,” Boilen said. “We have sandhill cranes right now out at our place. They’re so spectacular, and it can almost take your mind off coronavirus for a second. You can almost feel like other things don’t matter, and that’s pretty special.”

Based on her research, Antonia Malchik, the Whitefish-based author of the 2019 book A Walking Life, partly credits that healing power to the cognitive role the simple act of walking plays in human development. She also reports a recent uptick in outdoor activity in the Whitefish area, evidenced by packed trailhead parking lots and neighbors who don’t normally bike suddenly pedaling with their children every day.

“I don’t think people would be doing it if there weren’t a deeper need,” Malchik said. “If there weren’t a craving to be out there, if we weren’t feeling attached to nature and in some way feeling the draw of it for ourselves, then we could just sit on our couches all the time.” 

As Montanans wrestle with the new realities of pandemic life — job loss, remote work and schooling, social distancing, the absence of human touch and normal routine — maintaining mental health has become a more pressing priority than ever before. And the outdoors has become a vital component of that maintenance. The Japan-born practice of forest bathing is being promoted across the globe. The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug a tree for five minutes a day to fill the void of human contact. Andrew Person, a Missoula attorney, military veteran and former Democratic state legislator, has recognized the therapeutic value of wildlands through conversations with fellow veterans and the work of his nonprofit, Montanans for National Security, which takes veterans onto those lands. He said the general public should be turning to those lands now.

“It’s tough mentally to get through this, and we’ve both had a tough week with assignments being due and finals and all that, so having some place to escape and fall in love with the new flowers popping up and watch an osprey eat a fish, it’s super helpful.” 

UM student Josiah Simmons

“If they’re feeling like there’s this invisible enemy out there at all times, and if they feel like they’re constantly vigilant against the threat of that virus, and if it’s creating a lot of stress for them, for almost the exact same reason why public lands have been helpful and have brought solace to veterans, it would bring solace to people experiencing that,” Person said.

But with so many people already flocking to trails and fishing access sites, concern about those areas becoming sites for the transmission of COVID-19 has become top-of-mind for local health officials and land advocates alike. Municipalities across the state have closed playgrounds in the name of public health, and Missoula County Incident Commander Cindy Farr said the potential for large crowds congregating at trailheads has spurred public messaging on the importance of maintaining social distancing. It’s the same approach Rachel Schmidt, director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, has taken statewide.

“We’ve tried to communicate very specifically, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity, but we only have this opportunity if we do it safely,’” Schmidt said. “Because right now, first and foremost, we’re facing a public health crisis, and most important is the health and safety of everybody.”

In Gallatin County, the U.S. Forest Service and Gallatin County Land Trust have installed signage at outdoor recreation locations to the same effect, and Lori Christenson, Gallatin’s city-county environmental health director, said local officials discussed early on what to do if contact tracing revealed clusters of COVID-19 cases tied to trailheads. 

In addition to the potential for disease transmission, increased outdoor recreation has sparked concern over resource damage during the wet spring mud season. EJ Porth, associate director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said her organization has received requests from the public to close the Drinking Horse Trail near Bozeman due to damage caused by increased traffic and muddy conditions. Local officials opted to keep the trail open.

“We can repair trails,” Porth said. “People’s mental health is more important right now.”

Farr and Christenson each said their respective counties recognize the importance of outdoor recreation during the pandemic, both for physical health and mental well-being. Farr added that Missoula County has tried to keep as many public spaces open as possible because “we want people to disperse and go to different areas instead of everybody just going to hike the M.” User groups and organizations such as the Montana Wilderness Association have endeavored through blog posts and social media to emphasize the importance of recreating responsibly, both to minimize the risk of virus transmission and to ensure continued access at a critical time.

Overflow parking at the Rattlesnake trailhead in Missoula April 25, 2020. Photo by Alex Sakariassen. Credit: Alex Sakariassen. / MTFP

“There’s a feeling of helplessness” among the public, said John Gatchell, senior conservation advisor at MWA, who said he’s noticed recreationists in Helena in recent weeks frequenting MacDonald Pass and trails near his home. “We don’t see the virus, we aren’t sure where it is, we know that it spreads really easily. There’s all that uncertainty, and the nice thing is, with public lands, with some care, you can get out, you can improve your own health, that of your family, you can reduce your stress, and boost your immune system.”

Along the main stem of the Rattlesnake, Megan Delamont and Josiah Simmons were seeking exactly those benefits on April 25. The two, both wildlife biology students at the University of Montana, had stopped with their dogs to watch an osprey feeding on a trout atop a tree. The fish wriggled beneath the osprey’s talons as Delamont and Simmons talked about the packed trailhead parking lot and their desire to get outside. Simmons confessed he “can’t stand the quarantine.”

“I’ve got to get out,” he said. “It’s tough mentally to get through this, and we’ve both had a tough week with assignments being due and finals and all that, so having some place to escape and fall in love with the new flowers popping up and watch an osprey eat a fish, it’s super helpful.” 

Porth and others believe the increased COVID-inspired usage of trails and open spaces in the has helped highlight public lands as critical health infrastructure. Conversations about land conservation in Montana over the past decade have largely focused on public lands as an economic and job-creating asset. Porth and Malchik both said they hope for and predict a shift in that thinking toward a view of public lands as a mental health asset. 

For psychologist Boilen, the need for such an asset will only become more widespread in the coming months. Even among her friends, Boilen said she’s noticed an increase in anxiety, fear, frustration and alcohol use during the pandemic, and she predicts a looming mental health crisis on the heels of the COVID curve.

“There are a lot of people who were doing fine, they were going along,” Boilen said. “Then they lost their job, then they lost access to their friends, then they maybe lost housing or had other stressors, and they’re fighting with the spouse. Many of us don’t know how to cope with this. None of us know how to cope with this. This is brand new. Unless you were alive [during the influenza pandemic of] 1918, you’ve never done this before. So it’s brutal.”

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...