Bad behavior by humans is putting lives, environment and the economy at risk, and what seems like a new trend of closing natural areas rather than working on prevention is an unfair and slippery slope.
This year, like last year, we headed off on a long-planned two-week outdoorsy vacation to the American West, only to find “closed” signs in both the Coconino National Forest (Flagstaff, Arizona) and the San Juan National Forest (Durango, Colorado). Trails, dirt roads, many businesses and campgrounds were all shut down. Durango took the further step of closing city-owned lands. Nearby state parks and wildlife areas were also closed. Why? Drought and “human-caused fires.” Flagstaff had a fire in May caused by “an abandoned and illegal campfire” after a campfire ban was already in place.
It’s not just sloppy campers, though. The website for the closed Prescott National Forest (PNF) stated, “While there is a potential for any visitor, local or otherwise to cause a wildfire, most human-caused fires affecting PNF lands have been associated with local activity in which a fire started on private land or associated with non-recreational activity adjacent to the forest.” The National Park Service reports that up to 90 percent of wildland fires are caused by humans.
A 2017 fire took out 72,000 acres near Brian Head, Utah, destroying homes and enveloping nearby Zion National Park in choking smoke for days. The cause of the fire? A person clearing weeds on private property. He was charged with several misdemeanors carrying potential fines of less than $3,500. Fighting the fire took in excess of $40 million and will ultimately cost “double to triple that” after restoration is done, according to TheSpectrum.com. The cost will be borne by the state of Utah and the U.S. Forest Service.
Of course we Santa Claritans are all too familiar with fires. Ours seem to originate near freeways. We need to protect homes and lives, but much as we can’t close the freeways due to drought, we shouldn’t be closing recreation areas, either. In Durango, all the outdoor shops warned us of $3,000 fines for setting foot on a trail. Security guards blocked fire roads. Reportedly, private volunteer patrols were also out enforcing closures. In Flagstaff, caution tape and warning signs blocked off every trailhead.
Are our only options “closed” or “on fire”? More fire prevention would cost far less than enforced closures, firefighting, and restoration. Fires impact not only people and wildlife but also harm watersheds and water supply in a huge way. And it just isn’t right that the crown jewels of our country, funded by all residents, might be increasingly off limits. Public land is not there to look at from afar; it is there to be experienced. Droughts will come and go, as they always have. People, on the other hand, can learn. What about enhanced forest management, especially near where people are? How about specific access passes, coupled with mandatory awareness education? For visitors, perhaps individual, per-day, liability insurance. For public-land-adjacent businesses and residents, specific guidelines tied to public information campaigns. It’s worked for things like water conservation and wearing seatbelts. Why not this?
On our trip, we noted the license plates of fellow visitors. Florida. Virginia. Minnesota. Texas. Quite a few Californians. Busloads of folks from Asia and Europe. We met a great couple from Australia. Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in annual consumer spending and fuels 7.6 million direct jobs, per the Outdoor Industry Association.
Public servants dutifully told us there are “lots of other things to do” in these areas. Perhaps, but we didn’t drive nearly 1,000 miles to Durango just to shop in the cute stores, enjoy a few good restaurants, and check out a couple museums. Visitors, residents and many businesses are there for the recreational activities. Our campground (on private land, thank goodness, so it wasn’t closed) had experienced $20,000 in losses from cancellations just by mid-June. Purgatory Ski Resort heavily promoted their summer activities in glossy magazines, yet it was creepily vacant, mountainside slides and trampolines silent, at the height of summer vacation.
Marketing photos of idyllic scenery and outdoor adventures are great, but not if the reaction to inevitable drought cycles is slapping up closed signs. Our forests have been neglected for years. Humans are encroaching. Drought and all these things are reality. We need solutions other than “closed” lest we have far less awe-inspiring joy and many more ghost towns in the West.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.