Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Overuse: Chaos in the National Forests

This was the best view of the Canyon of the West Fork of Oak Creek that I could get to easily via bicycle. In the distance are the Black Hills or possibly the Bradshaw Mountains. There was a spot with a sweeping vista from a cliff but a group had setup an elaborate camp all along it and I didn't feel comfortable approaching. Some people are unfriendly about such situations, especially in the particularly remote part of the forest along the canyon. Only the hardiest campers seeking solitude would have driven that far back into the forest.

I used to want more people to utilize public lands and enjoy the outdoors because I thought it was a generally beneficial thing for public welfare and would recruit new advocates for land preservation. I don't think that anymore. One of the things that changed is the population of the country, especially in the western United States, where there are now many more people than when I formed that opinion. It's a question of proportionality. There are too many people for the uses that are available.

I went for a mountain bike ride on what I hoped would have been a reasonably quiet road to find a view of the nearby canyon of the West Fork of Oak Creek, along the Mogollon Rim, in Coconino National Forest. What I found instead were many huge encampments with hundreds of vehicles, and I presume thousands of people. The main road, despite being a narrow, gravel forest road, featured traffic to rival two lane state highways.

Under current law, everyone has a right to be there. In some areas the US Forest Service limits access with a permit system, but I think some uses should be banned first. In particular, the all terrain vehicles are a problem. What I observed was drivers of "dune buggy" type ATVs racing back and forth on the main gravel road. At first I thought they were on their way to and from the more rugged side roads, but soon it became clear they were simply doing laps on the smoothest, fastest road available. Most had no interest in the side "jeep" roads. I know this because I eventually headed down the intended spur that goes along the canyon, and the ATVs all but disappeared. People own those things specifically for racing along high quality gravel roads.

This is incompatible with almost every other conceivable use for National Forests. The vehicles violate the speed limit, and this is obviously the primary intent of the drivers. They are a hazard to other types of vehicles who use the roads as transportation routes to come and go from destinations, they present extreme hazards to pedestrians and wildlife, make a disproportionate noise compared to other vehicles, and seem to have little or no pollution control devices. You can tell from the smell of the exhaust. They also contribute to erosion and increase silty runoff into streams. The drivers are also a hazard to themselves. Flagstaff Medical Center reported the busiest trauma weekend in the history of the organization and physicians attributed it to ATVs. This uses up first responder time and resources and takes up the resources of medical facilities in the midst of a pandemic.

The drivers also seem to have bad judgment if they are afraid to go on the more rugged side roads, which is a use for an ATV that I can appreciate. They seem to not realize that racing fast on loose gravel is probably equally or more dangerous than riding a rough road, and indeed there are accidents. All this occurs on roads with a 30 mile per hour speed limit.

Since ATV drivers seem to not be responsible users of the national forests, I'd like to see ATVs banned from most forest roads and possibly banned completely from all US Forest Service property. They can go on Bureau of Land Management lands or private property instead.

Other irresponsible behaviors I saw: a guy walking around in tall, dry grass, smoking a cigarette, people playing extremely loud music, and evidence of littering.

Unfortunately it was unusually hot last weekend and it's apparent that many people who camp in the high country simply want to be outdoors without burning alive, so they have taken up camping. But they aren't in the forest for its natural beauty, hunting resources, bird watching, or other outdoor activities  They are merely there to setup an outdoor party location where it isn't too hot. I think it has been established that this type of use has been increased by the COVID-19 crisis.

I don't entirely blame people for wanting to get away from 115 degree urban areas, but I also saw large groups of people sitting and standing close together and not using masks. If there is a breeze, this may be ok, but in still air it is as dangerous as being indoors in a crowd without a mask. Many of the groups (and vehicles) were blasting loud music. I also wonder about disposal of human waste. This type of dispersed camping use is completely legal and should be, though the loud music is uncalled for. But I find myself in despair over behavior that shows a lack of education and a general disregard for the solitude of the forest.

There are too many tyros in the national forests this year. I pray things improve in the near future, but considering the unending growth of the population of North America, my expectations are low.

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