Officials keep Umstead State Park closed despite petitions to open larger trails

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Troy Brengle of Raleigh is a self-described nature enthusiast who likes to hike barefoot.

He believes the one good thing about North Carolina's stay-at-home order is that it allows people to get out, hike, bike, walk, and run as long as they practice social distancing.

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"Nature heals. Exposure to nature boosts immunity. It helps our mental health. It helps our physical health," Brengle said while standing at the barricaded entrance to Umstead State Park on Glenwood Avenue in Northwest Raleigh.

Brengle hasn't hiked barefoot in Umstead in more than two weeks.

The park closed on March 28 when officials with the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation announced in a statement, "William B. Umstead State Park had been extremely overcrowded, and social distancing was not being maintained."

Now Brengle has started an online petition to reopen the 5,600 acre park.

He considered the closing of Umstead abrupt and without warning.

"What troubles me is that the state parks have made no educational efforts to get us to behave how they want us to behave," he said while pointing out other local park have signs reminding people about social distancing.

A spokesperson for the state Division of Parks and Recreation said the division didn't have the budget to blanket Umstead with signs, especially now that there's no revenue coming in.

Instead Katie Hall said the state used other means to educate Umstead visitors.

"We have spoken with several media outlets across the state. We have posted frequently on Facebook, Twitter and our website, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. If some people haven't seen our messaging, they haven't looked for it," Hall wrote in an email.

Some have suggested a compromise by opening only the extremely wide gravel-lined bridle trails.

"I would love to see the bridle trails open. It's better than nothing. There's plenty of space to move aside," Brengle said.

But state officials didn't sound interested in a compromise, even when ABC 11 pointed to Brengle's petition that now has more than 900 virtual signatures.

Brengle thinks all trails at the park could be reopened if visitors were educated about social distancing.

"The thing about Umstead is, you know, if you want to keep six-feet distance, just step off the trail and let someone pass. It's really easy," he said.

Brengle believes the crowds turned away from Umstead have flocked to local city and county parks with much less acreage.

"What I see happening now that I've been going to the smaller parks is that these places are getting overcrowded. I'm fearing that they're going to close them down as well," he lamented.

Here is the full statement from the NC Division of Parks and Recreation:

"We are focused on doing our part to support both Wake County's Stay-At-Home order and Governor Cooper's Stay-At-Home order. William B. Umstead State Park had been extremely overcrowded, and social distancing was not being maintained. The park was closed to prevent this unsafe situation. While we empathize with the requests to re-open Umstead, it is simply not safe to do so at this time. Our priority will be doing what's best for the health and safety of the public and our staff during this pandemic. We encourage residents to continue to spend time outdoors in their own backyards or neighborhoods, observing CDC social distancing recommendations."

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