Paradise trashed

Once little-known public lands gems are falling victim to throngs of unethical outdoor goers
CATHY Idaho mccoy creek
Photo: Chris Hunt

For the first time ever, I called a law enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service to report some significant vandalism on public lands managed by the Forest Service in eastern Idaho.

Everybody has a breaking point. I reached mine last week when, while driving out of McCoy Creek on the Caribou National Forest, I noticed that a rock face had been defaced by some love-struck moron who scribed, in bright white paint, a big heart followed by the name of his sweetheart — “Cathy.”

Lucky girl.

This came after I and a fishing buddy spent some time breaching a man-made dam in the creek at a fairly well-known “swimming hole” — it was once a beaver dam, but for today’s campers, it apparently wasn’t good enough. They hauled in rocks from upstream and down, and erected a full-on stone wall across the creek. In my estimation, after almost two decades of working in fisheries conservation, the dam served as a significant obstacle to upstream and downstream migration for native cutthroat trout and Utah suckers. For what it’s worth, we also walked past two piles of poopy toilet paper, one positioned egregiously along the stream bank, and the other right between two fresh sets of ATV tracks where no official trail is located.

People are gross.

For the first time since I wrote a guidebook on the small waters of eastern Idaho some 20 years ago, I’m publicly naming McCoy Creek. And I’m not “outting” the area. Not anymore. Judging by the use along the creek over the last couple of years, it’s no longer a local secret. Perhaps, by naming the creek, I can inspire campers, ATV riders, swimmers, hunters and anglers to self-police this very special place.

As of this writing, I’m bouncing around among Forest Service law enforcement personnel to recreational officers in the Palisades Ranger District to various Caribou-Targhee National Forest office managers trying to figure out the best way to report the damage, have it cleaned up and mitigated and, more importantly, how to educate campers and other public lands users on the ethics associated with venturing out on lands that belong to every single American.

Everyone has the right to visit McCoy Creek. It’s a very small slice of America’s vast, 640 million-acre public lands estate — the envy of the world. As Americans, we own it, and a portion of our taxes goes to the Forest Service that serves as our property manager. But nobody has the right to trash it.

To put a finer point on it, this land was once sacred to the Shoshone Nation. Colonialism is an ugly truth, but it’s still the truth. We can, at the very least, show some respect to lands once hunted, fished and trapped for simple subsistence by a proud people — trashing it not only insults old white guys like me who like to fish and camp, but it’s a finger in the eye of every Native American whose ancestors enjoyed a much more symbiotic relationship with the land than you or I will ever fully understand.

And yet, since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the late winter and spring of 2020, the algorithm has changed on our public lands. More people have discovered (or rediscovered) the outdoors. More people are taking to the gravel roads and roadside campsites are generally full, even in the middle of the week. McCoy Creek might be best described as a living laboratory for the public-lands experiment that Americans have enjoyed for well over a century. And for the first time in generations, that experiment might be failing.

Why? Because doing without learning changes the algebra. Who shows up for a camping trip with a can of spray paint? Someone who has never been educated … someone who doesn’t know how to behave on land that belongs to everyone. Just like the person who could barely be bothered to get off the ATV (on a newly pioneered “trail,” no less) to take a dump.

On McCoy, anyone can haul a camper or a fifth-wheel up the rather serviceable road leading up into the hills. Anyone who can find an open campsite can park their trailer or pitch a tent, sometimes painfully close to the creek. Anyone can stay, for free, for 14 consecutive days.

mccoy creek idaho fishing
Fly fishing on McCoy Creek (photo: Chad Shmukler).

The ability to do these things is an unofficial privilege, and some are taking advantage of it.

Truthfully, this has been building for a couple of years. Last year, for the first time, I had a couple of negative experiences in the woods with other people. And I’m not the argumentative sort.

But the lack of education — simply familiarizing oneself with the ethics associated with the use of public lands — is jarring. No, you can’t “reserve” 40 acres of national forest with an 8-foot supply trailer parked by itself, right in the middle of a meadow. No, you can’t hop on your ATV and just carve your own way through the woods. No, you can’t threaten people who are going out of their way to give you space while trying to do exactly what you’re doing.

And no, you can’t just drop trou and leave your stained TP behind as a monument to your bowel movement.

mccoy creek idaho cutthroat trout
A McCoy Creek cutthroat trout (photo: Chad Shmukler).

Honestly, it’s about respect. Not just for other folks, but respect for the land and the water we’re blessed with. Think about it. Only in North America can you wander 640 million acres of land without having to answer to a landowner, a gamekeeper or a riverkeeper. With the appropriate licenses, you can fish, hunt, ride and even cut firewood or pan for gold without having to ask a soul for his or her blessing.

But I’m sure I speak for others when I say this: If you’re going to disrespect the land and the rest of us who value it, don’t come at all. Stay home. Express your love for Cathy by painting it across your own back fence.

This new generation of public lands users could be the factor that throws off an equation that, until now, has worked quite well. If this continues, or, God forbid, escalates, it could result in road and trail closures, a moratorium on dispersed camping or worse. The Forest Service could just simply block access to the area in the name of conservation and fish and wildlife habitat rehabilitation.

That would be a horrible ramification. But, from what I can tell, we might deserve it.


Sorry this happened to a favorite spot of yours.

People just suck. Our minds are rotted and nature is probably the only thing that can save us. However, we'll kill nature before it saves us.

On the bright side, once this planet purges us, it will eventually heal.

Amen brother. I think the lack of respect - towards anything and everything - is something that is becoming very "American", which is a sad, sad thing. Individual liberty and freedom should not come at the expense of others being able to enjoy the same, beautiful open spaces you're pooping in, leaving your trash in and squatting on. I too have come across people intentionally blocking forest roads and acting as though they own the land. Too bad that sense of ownership doesn't extend to being stewards of the land as well.

Those of us who have been enjoying the fruits of the outdoors for a considerable time have a duty to help others get to where we are in terms of respect for the resource, and conservation.

...While I empathize with the author's situation - and have experienced similar - I'm not sure scolding and telling people to stay home is an appropriate direction.

We desperately need more people to support the outdoors, and starting off by telling them how screwed up they are is very much the wrong direction to take, IMO.

I couldn't agree more. I don't really have much to add other than my support and experiences. I come from a long line of outdoors-folk. We were raised with the realization that what we have access to is a finite resource easily swept away by those unaware. If we all don't do our part to protect and preserve this asset, we soon won't have it to recreate in and neither will our offspring. I live in Washington state and the condition of a majority (not exaggerated) of the dispersed camp sites are either slightly or completely trashed. It is a rare find to come upon a dispersed campsite in clean and natural condition.

I spent many nights in the Adirondacks of northern NY in the 20 years leading up to the pandemic. Never had a problem finding somewhere to camp. Since the pandemic there have been so many people going into the High Peaks region that there have had to be reservation systems put into place for hikers in the High Peaks region. I have read multiple reports from the NY DEC and in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise of people being rescued because they have no idea on how to prepare for a trip into the woods and others on arrests for vandalism inside the Adirondack Park. As you mention, education is the key. For many that is. Some will continue to be morons no matter how hard you try.

Welcome to America, Chris! Nobody visits our Ohio State Parks to fly fish, but plenty do to get outdoors. And they trash the trails and parks: fishing bait containers, snack wrappers, fast food containers, drink cans and bottles, etc. These parks aren't pristine; they are usually flood control lakes and the surrounding former farm lands. But they are the outdoors, they are accessible, and most of us treat them as valued public assets. Too many don't. My wife and pick up probably a dump truck equivalent of trash on a annual basis walking these trails daily. I wish there was a way to get people to stop littering on public lands.

I agree with an eception but first in agreement, when you spend a day hiking to 12,000' to fish a high lake or hunt elk, nothing po's me more than finding trash and beer cans. If you carry it in, carry it out. Leaving it makes you a slob.
Now my problem wi the Forest Service and BLM. They discriminate against us old people by closing off access roads we have used for years with our pickups and jeeps to save some walking and to get our game out. We caused little damage and in fact cleared these old roads of deadfalls. Noe these roads are being blocked to allow only ATV traffic who tear up roads and drive around deadfalls. Being 70, I am being told if you want to access the ground you have hunted for 40 years, buy an ATV or walk and carry you game out several miles on your back. This is pure age discrimination. I have spoken with our game wardens here in CO and they agree and ar frustrated. They try to provide more access while the Federal Government entities are denying access.

Wonderfully written and so true..

In general, from what I have seen in my local travels fishing both fresh and salt water, the amount of trash I see floating by is surely an indication of a decrease in the overall respect for the environment. I have never seen it this bad. I was fishing a local saltwater pond near a small marina at night when I felt something hefty bump me in the back of my right leg. It hung there for a second until the current pulled it off my leg. I frantically turned on my light to see a bean bag chair disappear in the darkness. Scared the heck out of me.
With regards to your specific concern with public lands, I strongly believe that some people think they can do whatever they want on these lands because of one word: “public”. They don’t know or care that there are restrictions and rules of use on public lands. Not sure what the answer is to this. As a society, we are certainly more “educated” than at any time but at the same time, we also seem to be more ignorant. Thanks for the article. Ken

As someone who will never visit McCoy Creek let alone fish it ( i live in UK ) maybe my thoughts are less valid .However ,i am envious of two things - one the opportunity to walk/see such beauty without cost ( fishing is then a big bonus ) and secondly your patience. In the forum of these comments i cant describe the anger i would feel ,wandering through such a beautiful spot to find "Cathy " it all its glory .
I think if you are considering "education" the case is already lost - what or who thinks this is anything like reasonable or considerate behaviour .I think you hit the nail on the head - a Moron and in my experience there is no discussion /argument you can win with Morons - they are a beast all on their own .
Good Luck and thank you for raising the issue - i am not clever enough to offer a "reasonable " solution but if your kids and Grandkids want to enjoy the outdoors a solution has to be found - education i think is wasted on Cathys Beau but maybe if they unfortunately have kids ,that is your target audience for the education .

In 2020 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I noticed a HUGE uptick in the trash left along the roadside and trails. I began to carry trash bags in my fishing vest to pick up garbage as I walked back to my car. Also, an even larger eyesore is the graffiti on the stone walls along the road. It's sad. I've verbally addressed it when I've seen it occurring only to be verbally assaulted. My response was to walk away while shooting video of the perpetrators in action with their license plate in plain view. The Park Service likes this!
Fortunately about this time a volunteer group began, Save Our Smokies (SOS), who has now been trained in pressure washing the graffiti as well as organized trash pickups and works with the Park Service.
I don't see an improvement in the behavior of these self-centered users, but I do see hope in the stewards of our precious lands.

Jim Parks
Tails of the Smokies

Exactly why there now no trespassing signs along our stretch of the Henry’s fork people keep shitting, not cleaning it up, no respect…

Just another result or consequence of the "Liberal poisoning of America". No respect for people, or our natural resources. The liberal progressive types could care less about laws or ethics because they don't have the character or values many of us do. Sad but true.

What’s truly sad is that you the other side takes perfect care of our waterways and other areas, and are perfect stewards while out there. Right. On a flat earth.

Why is there always somebody who has to try to jam politics into every discussion?

I'd be embarrassed if it were me...

I salute you for your restraint -- 'cause it's so angering to come across "our fellow humans evidence." I pick up as much as I can, wonder how I can clean the rocks and even trees I come across with taggings. I won't reveal my state and where I do most of my fly-fishing, but it's the one everyone seems to hate. Yes, it's golden, but also filled with a lot of idiots.

I call in to the authorities. I clean and pick up what I can. And I talk it up as gently as I can. Good luck to us all, I think we're in a real battle here.