As business closures and stay-at-home orders implemented this spring halted many regular daily activities for residents of northern Harris and Montgomery counties, visitors seeking an outdoor escape from their homes have flocked to local parks and preserves.

“We’ve seen an uptick in activity pretty much throughout this crisis, but especially when closures happened,” said Suzanne Simpson, land stewardship director for the Bayou Land Conservancy. “The importance of our public land has really risen to the forefront during this crisis. And actually instead of seeing people disconnect from nature, I’ve seen people connect to nature in ways they never have before.”

Public turnout

Simpson said the BLC, a Houston-based nonprofit that works to preserve thousands of acres of land along the region’s waterways, has seen attendance along the 13-mile Spring Creek Nature Trail on the Harris-Montgomery county line surge since mid-March.

In addition to hiking or biking, Simpson also said the trail and other spaces along the Spring Creek Greenway have been used in new ways as gathering places for families and individuals who may have never visited the corridor before.

“The trail has gone from just a path to also being a classroom in some cases. Whenever I’ve been out there, I’ve seen a family that is doing their lessons outdoors. ... That’s an activity that I’ve never seen out there. I’ve seen families taking bike rides that I feel like it’s a new activity for them,” Simpson said. “It’s hard to put a silver lining on this, but it can be one of the only silver linings in this situation.”

In W.G. Jones State Forest north of The Woodlands, a temporary statewide closure kept visitors away from the area’s recreation sites and 15 miles of hiking trails for around two weeks in April. Aside from that period, Connor Murnane, a forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said the already well-attended urban forest area has attracted more people than usual this spring.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the amount of visitors that come up to the forest. We typically clock in at 8 a.m., and people are there well before that already out on the trails,” Murnane said. “There was some disappointment when we closed it, but people were pretty much understanding about that, and they were certainly ecstatic when we opened back up.”

Chris Nunes, director of The Woodlands Township Parks and Recreation Department, said the township’s more than 200 miles of pathways and trails have also seen a spike in use as residents sought to get outdoors since local, state and county gathering restrictions went into place. While some township parks and other public facilities were temporarily closed this spring, Nunes said the local pathway network remained open and highly popular through the start of the season.

“We in The Woodlands have a community that’s built on our pathways and trails, and people already used them at a tremendous level pre-COVID. And the last seven, eight weeks, that use has gone up exponentially,” Nunes said. “It’s just an awesome sight to see that they couldn’t use the parks but they were definitely enjoying family time in these challenging times together.”

Throughout Harris County Precinct 4, Parks Director Dennis Johnston said use of the precinct’s parks and public spaces has increased since March, especially among families looking to get out of the house. Like Simpson, Johnston noted that many visitors to Precinct 4 parks and other lands along Spring and Cypress creeks may be experiencing the spaces for the first time. He also said families have been attending the parks as groups more often given the additional time now available for them, as previously regular activities such as commutes or errands have decreased or been eliminated from daily life.

“People [are] discovering the trails that have never been here, and there are people going off of some of those little side trails that they normally don’t take the time to discover,” he said. “We have some that go down to the white sand beaches along Spring Creek, so people are down there on the beaches. .... Some of them look like they’re in Galveston.”

Animal interactions

Along with the rise in the Spring Creek trail's human use, Simpson said the start of the spring season has allowed visitors to see a variety of animals in action along the creek and its preserves.

“This is happening at a fascinating time in a lot of animals’ life histories, which is springtime,” she said. “Animals are incredibly busy because they are building nests; they’re finding mates; they’re replenishing their energy reserves. ... People are getting to see all this animal activity that’s happening right in front of them, and animals are able for the most part to go about their business.”

Murnane said the Jones forest's limited closure provided time for some of its natural residents to change their habits as well. He said sightings of deer throughout the woods have increased, while the forest service’s local trapper and residential areas around the woods have noted a rise in feral hog reports through the past several weeks.

The forest service’s biologist is also monitoring the effects of the closure on the area’s population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, which Murnane said have become more active amid their nesting season—a trend that has been reported across each of Texas’ five state forests. Murnane said even the state lands’ temporary closure could result in more frequent animal sightings by forest visitors this year, as wildlife became more accustomed to a lack of human interaction last month.

“I would say that folks would probably see more wildlife walking around the forest just because they were used to it for that time period,” he said. “The Texas A&M Forest Service manages five state forests. And I would say across the other four, they’ve definitely seen an increase in wildlife activity.”

Throughout The Woodlands, Nunes said the period of increased outdoor activity by residents has accompanied a fall in the number of feral hog incidents reported to the township. The local hog population had proven problematic in the months leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, prompting township and Montgomery County officials to expand their wildlife management planning and trapping efforts earlier this year.

“We’ve actually seen a little bit of a decrease in the hog calls,” Nunes said. “We were seeing evidence of the hogs down there, some rutting next to the pathways, but we haven’t heard an overall call that we’re seeing more animal, wildlife sightings.”

Connecting outdoors

Johnston said he hopes this period of increased public land use will continue given the physical and mental benefits that visits to natural spaces can provide, especially after stretches of confinement within a home or away from friends and family members.

“Harris County parks have kind of become the mental health department of Harris County,” he said. “Suicides are up; domestic violence is up; and all these things are anxiety-related issues. ... Getting out with your family, getting into a park, a trail, going on a bike ride, going on a hike, whatever, really is a release of that anxiety.”

Johnston added that residents' reactions and usage of parks and natural areas may result in a reassessment of the value of public space both for individuals and government planners considering such amenities.

“This particular event, as awful as it has been, has kind of opened peoples’ eyes as to maybe the parks are a little more important than we thought," he said. "What’s left are these green spaces and parks out here. Hey, we need them. So from that aspect I think it’s been a very positive thing. It’s sad that it took an event like this to kind of be the awakening for parks."

Simpson also said more area residents may continue to frequently rely on parks as a resource even as work and home life gradually returns to normal.

“What I hope happens is that people realize that when everything else in our lives is stripped away, what matters is bike rides with our family. What matters is having lessons out on the trail. What matters is having connections with the outdoor spaces that are always going to be there for us if we’re there to steward them,” she said. “I’m hoping that that will be a lesson that carries past the coronavirus crisis and be in peoples’ ethos from now on, and really ingratiates itself into peoples’ values.”