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Masks Required On Federal Lands When Distancing Isn't Possible

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Federal agencies are figuring out how to treat masks on public land in the wake of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s repeal of Montana’s statewide mask mandate.

President Biden issued a national mandate for masks on federal lands and in federal buildings on January 20. Just over three weeks later, Gov. Gianforte lifted Montana’s mask mandate — although masks are still required in some counties and cities, and in state-owned buildings. 

The federal government owns about 30 percent of land in Montana, and most of that is under the jurisdiction of the National Park service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Those agencies say the federal mandate applies in buildings and on congested trails. 

Al Nash is spokesperson with the Montana/Dakotas office of the BLM. 

"It’s really quite simple. If you’re on BLM-managed public lands and you can’t physically distance from other people, you’re to wear a mask."

He said in winter, finding solitude on BLM land shouldn’t be an issue and that the policy focuses on responsible recreation, not strict enforcement.

"You’re not going to see BLM rangers out there writing tickets to people if they don’t have a mask on."

In an emailed statement, national press officer for the U.S. Forest Service Babete Anderson said masks are required in all buildings and facilities, and "we are asking the public to wear masks on all national forest and grasslands when physical distancing cannot be maintained."

Gina Kerzman, public affairs officer at Glacier National Park, said if visitors are on an empty trail, in a campsite, or with members of their own household, there’s no need to put on a mask. However, they should have one handy.

"But you should be prepared to put on a mask if you encounter another person with whom you can’t maintain physical distance of at least six feet."

She said that means visitors won’t be able to enter restaurants, visitor centers, hotels, and other buildings in the park without a mask. People who violate the mandate could be cited, but Kerzman said that’s a last resort, and the park will emphasize gentle reminders.

"We’re not gonna be walking around as the mask police writing tickets all over the place."

In an emailed statement, Yellowstone National Park said that face masks are required in all federal buildings and on federal land, but did not respond to additional requests for clarification. 

Agency representatives said it’s shoulder season right now, but trail use on federal lands across the state will likely ramp up this spring and summer. 

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