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New Mexicans flocking to state parks despite closure

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Fenton Lake State Park is closed, but a park ranger there estimated 1,000 cars show up every weekend. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – While many New Mexico cities are much quieter than usual, hundreds continue to flock to state parks, which have been closed since April 3 to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, park rangers have started issuing citations to discourage people from entering parks during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home order.

At Fenton Lake, in the Jemez Mountains, Ranger Joshua Herron said he has cited 10 people for entering the park illegally, most of them trying to fish or hike.

“These past two weekends, we can’t even leave the front gate,” he said. “As soon as we leave, cars start parking and they want to walk in.”

He estimated around 1,000 cars attempt to enter the park every weekend, many of them visitors from large cities looking for a break from being stuck in their homes.

“We get a massive amount of people from Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” he said. “Probably more from Albuquerque.”

Herron said the visitors have him concerned for his family’s health, because he now has to interact with so many people.

Local residents living around the park have also been affected.

Stephanie Herrera, an employee of Amanda’s Country Store in La Cueva, said the store serves more than 600 people daily. Most are on their way to Fenton Lake or one of the many hot springs in the area.

“Which are supposed to be closed, but people are still going, anyway,” she said.

She said many who visit her store are elderly people trying to get out of crowded cities. Sometimes, they already have the virus.

“We did have one person about two weeks ago saying he was sick and he was coming up here to quarantine,” she said. “We had to tell him he had to leave.”

Mark Brown, ranger for Bluewater Lake State Park, near Gallup, said lots of groups have been looking for access to the park.

Most of the time, however, he can’t make them leave. About three miles of shoreline around Bluewater Lake is private land and many large groups continue to use that land.

“Two Sundays ago, we had a group out there of over 45 people,” Brown said. He called the private land “a giant loophole.”

Bluewater Lake State Park borders the Navajo Nation, which has a high rate of COVID-19 cases. Brown said many visitors travel from Albuquerque and he’s worried they could cause another outbreak in the area.

Most groups leave the private land when he asks, he said.

“There’s other groups that kind of have the attitude that, ‘I’m not going to go unless you make me,’ ” he said. “Obviously, at that point, we can’t make them.”

Herrera said she hopes people start to follow to the rules.

“This is our community, so when we see people disobeying the laws, it’s kind of tough,” she said.

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