OUTDOORS: Appreciating our public lands

Chris Muhr and Rick Corbin enjoying public lands. (Bill Harris/Special to the Montrose Daily Press) 

Coping with the challenges of the coronavirus has made 2020 unlike any other year in my lifetime. Everything in my daily routine had to be re-evaluated in respect to potential exposures to the virus. Simple activities like going to the store or getting together with friends had to be reconsidered. Long-established routines such as attending the monthly archaeological society meeting or carpooling with friends to go for a hike or bike ride went by the wayside.

The guidelines and restrictions brought on by the coronavirus had a major impact on our travel plans during 2020. Kathy and I had a lengthy trip back to the Midwest planned to visit friends and family. It included attending my 50th college reunion. We had also wanted to travel the north shore of Lake Superior in a camper van. Perhaps next year.

All these changes increased the stress and consternation in my usual routine. There was one activity in which I could safely participate – getting outdoors. Hiking, bird watching, bike riding, and fishing were activities that I could do safely. Better yet, I could do them with friends if we followed one simple rule – keep our distance.

From the crowds I encountered, I was not the only one who sought out the great outdoors. Whether going for a mountain bike ride at Buzzard Gulch or the Grand Mesa or hiking in the San Juans there were loads of people on the trail.

One real surprise was in early May. I joined Steve Dike and Jon Horn for some birding in the West End. We encountered a horde of campers along the Dolores and San Miguel rivers near the old town of Uravan. The Ball Park campground was packed to the gills and every wide spot along County Road Y 11 was filled with campers.

Usually, the West End is pretty quiet place. A slight uptick in visitation in the spring by those looking for an out-of-the-way experience is the norm. On the rare occasion when the Dolores River has good runoff there is a brief influx of river rafters. Hunting season is the busiest time as far as people in the backcountry, but they are spread out over a dozen canyons and the high country.

As it turned out, Moab and the rest of Grand County, Utah was in lockdown. None of the hotels, restaurants, campgrounds were open. Many of the campers we encountered were displaced by the Moab closure.

Hundreds of campers had descended “en masse” — way beyond the carrying capacity of a riparian environment. With the exception of the Ball Park campground there are few hardened campsites with a toilet, fencing to protect fragile ground and a fire ring. Some campers had trailers or RV’s, but many were in tents, and I wonder how many had brought along a portable toilet, as is recommended for back country camping.

Another crowded spring season like 2020 would certainly have a lasting negative impact on the West End’s river corridors. Much of it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The agency does not have the capacity or budget to respond quickly to huge increases in use, putting the land at risk for lasting impacts.

During the summer I read news articles and Facebook posts about the problems encountered on public lands around popular mountain towns. Huge influxes of visitors who had no regard for fragile mountain soils, leave no trace guidelines and no camping signs, leaving in their wake feces and trash. South Mineral Creek and the Ice Lake Basin near Silverton was one of the most egregious.

This year’s challenges brought into crystal clear focus the importance our public lands. Access to those lands provide an escape for many citizens looking to connect with nature, get some exercise and unwind from the pressures of day-to-day life. What it also revealed is the need for more education aimed at the newbies in the woods.

Everyone visiting public land needs to evaluate their potential impacts on the land. Follow the simple rules of leaving no trace. If you visit a trailhead or camping area that is full to overflowing, turn around and go some place else. Also, consider going somewhere other than the well-known, popular places. Do a little research and exploration. Let’s not spoil the one thing that brings us joy and solace.

Bill Harris is a long-time resident of western Colorado and author of “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau.”

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