Parks staff step up during pandemic

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In Lakewood, employees love what they do. The organization is rooted in core values that drive employees to deliver exceptional services to the community every day, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since the start of the pandemic, employees have been coming up with strategies to continue to offer the services Lakewood residents love. Over 25 percent of the city is parkland with over 100 parks and more than 200 miles of trails to enjoy, so you can imagine the record number of visitors Lakewood open space parks saw this spring and summer with people eager to get out for some fresh air after sheltering at home. 

Hayden Park on Green Mountain had overflowing parking lots, resulting in periodic closures. The Bear Creek Greenbelt was so packed with visitors that Lakewood patrol and maintenance vehicles couldn’t even access the park. Bear Creek Lake Park experienced more trail use than ever, followed by record use of the lakes. 

With fewer staff than normal resulting from budget reductions, staff members were working overtime to manage crowds and minimize COVID-19 risks. They had to change practices dramatically to keep each other safe, including distancing, alternate scheduling, disinfecting and mask wearing, all of which were challenging with limited vehicles and equipment while working outdoors in the heat with unpredictable park visitors.

“While most city employees can effectively socially distance and avoid crowds, our rangers have been in the thick of it since March,” said Drew Sprafke, open space parks supervisor. 

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A series of capacity plans had to be created, which included use limits, area limits, area closures and educational campaigns. The rapidly evolving situation and changes in public health orders from the state and county levels made developing these capacity plans challenging and implementing them labor intensive. Each change involved developing alternate plans, weighing pros and cons and shifting staff and equipment resources. 

With the increased use, park staff had to deal with more litter, vandalism, conflicts between visitors, trail damage and emergencies. Each week staff faced new challenges and had to develop new ways to cope with them while also dealing with the stresses everyone is facing in their personal lives. Resolving conflicts with users who were unhappy with management decisions became an everyday task that included getting screamed at and personally insulted regularly.

“Many of our rangers were asked to do something that we normally wouldn’t ask them to do and work a little bit outside of their comfort zone,” Sprafke said.

And boy did they. The park naturalist, who is responsible for education programs, shifted her role to serve as a field ranger to help with patrolling the parks. The natural resources specialist normally focused on managing environmental factors shifted significant time to maintenance duties to help keep up with increased trash and vandalism. Staff also embraced the opportunity to greet people with a smile and welcome visitors with any helpful information they could offer. 

“We have grown stronger as a team, and we keep touching on our unique sense of humor to endure a very trying time,” said Park Ranger Ron Viles. “This was a great opportunity to learn new things and help out in any way I could.”

The staff have performed extraordinarily under exceptionally demanding conditions and have truly shown their dedication, flexibility, creativity and teamwork.

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