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.”
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.
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.
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.