I love to camp. I love to camp almost as much as I love to fish. Being outside, far from city lights and city traffic, is soul-building. Dropping the jacks on my little camper overlooking a stretch of fishy water and spending a week away from computer screens, cell phone signals and the damn lawn mower is how I recharge.
And I don’t do campgrounds. Where I live, I’m fortunate — there are dozens upon dozens of public-land campgrounds on the national forests and BLM lands near my home. And a lot of folks use those campgrounds, which is a really good thing. But, if I have a choice, I almost always choose to go the “dispersed” route — a wide spot off a Forest Service road, or a hidden grotto connected to the road via a subtle two-track trail … that’s where I camp. It’s private. It’s rustic. It’s a great way to find solitude and, truth be told, better fishing.
In all honesty, I like to go where people aren’t.
But dispersed camping is becoming more and more popular. With that popularity, of course, comes the refuse that often remains after humans leave the woods — garbage, damage to the land and even piles of excrement. In Arizona’s iconic Oak Creek Canyon on the Coconino National Forest near Sedona, “campers” have trashed dispersed camping sites, carving their initials into tree trunks and crafting graffiti on rocks. On parts of the nearby Prescott National Forest, camping was banned for two years starting last summer after officials could no longer keep up with the trash and damage inflicted on public lands by dispersed campers.
Of course, the damage isn’t restricted to Arizona — public lands open to dispersed camping all over the West are being degraded as I write this. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has people searching for recreation away from crowds, and they’re finding things to do — good, wholesome outdoor activities — on lands that belong to all Americans. Unfortunately, they aren’t doing it right. And, as the saying goes, a few bad apples can spoil the entire barrel.
In time, if this misuse continues, forest managers will have no choice but to ban dispersed camping, close spur roads and restrict access to the public lands that give the West much of its appeal. Certainly, the pandemic can be blamed for an influx of inexperienced campers in need of some simple education when it comes to camping etiquette, but, honestly, the damage to public lands is nothing new.
For years, I’ve protected a couple of a “secret spots,” choosing to share them with a select few folks (mostly folks who don’t fish, mind you), under the assumption that special places are only special because they’re still largely intact and it’s easy to escape the crowds that might be gathered at the official campgrounds. When I visited one of my favorite locations a couple weeks ago, I discovered that what was once the “end of the road” was no longer. Instead, enthusiastic ORV riders had pioneered a circular “track” that bordered my once-sublime campsite — now, dirt bikers and ATV riders churn up dust and make camping on the bluff overlooking one my favorite public lands streams a lot less enjoyable. To make matters worse, presumably the same ORV folks have decided the short walk to stream isn’t short enough — they’ve created a completely new two-track trail across the meadow below my favorite campsite that goes directly to a popular swimming hole.
Just this past week, I ventured north, deep into the woods of Idaho’s panhandle, in search of west slope cutthroat trout and bull trout. I hauled my camper north through Montana, climbed a sketchy pass and dropped down into the headwaters of the St. Joe River. It’s stunningly beautiful country replete with tall firs and cedars that have come back in dense groves after the Great Burn in the early 1900s. The river itself is a sight to behold — cold, clear water cruising over scoured river rocks and through deep, green pools where trout eagerly await flies.
I was easily 100 miles from any notable population center, and I figured I would have my pick of any number of dispersed camping sites along the upper river. But when I arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, I realized that times are different. Every wide spot in the road was occupied, and I eventually settled for an out-of-the-way spot in a stock camp.
I’m not bemoaning the use of our public lands — it’s actually heartening to see people taking advantage of this uniquely American birthright. But as I drove out on Saturday morning, I was taken aback by the leavings of a few “campers” who decided that packing out what they packed in just wasn’t something they wanted to do. In the middle of the week, I was visited by a Panhandle National Forest employee who asked me if I knew anything about a stock picket being sawed down in a nearby campsite — I hadn’t noticed the damage until she pointed it out to me, but this bit of vandalism took some effort, a chainsaw and a general disregard for the next folks to come camping who might like to tie their horses up overnight.
This is the kind of behavior that will reduce our dispersed camping opportunities. If folks can’t be bothered to clean up after themselves and refrain from scrawling their initials in aspen trees, spray-painting a rock face, driving their ATVs across an untracked meadow or constructing some silly cairn made from displaced river rocks, they likely shouldn’t be camping in the first place. More damage will lead to more closures by land-management agencies, and rightly so.
I get that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and we’re seeing both the best and worst of humanity as our country deals with its most concerning cultural crisis since the 1960s. I also understand that “getting away from it all” is important for our emotional well-being — this is something I’ve grasped for decades. But if we can’t do it right, and keep our public lands clean and ready for the next folks who are trying to accomplish some responsible recreation during the time of COVID-19, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.
And if we’re not careful, those charged with managing our public lands will be forced to make some tough choices for us when it comes to dispersed camping. Let’s get our acts together and take care of the places we all love. The damage we inflict today cuts into our opportunities tomorrow.