For the first time ever, I called a law enforcement officer for the US Forest Service to report some significant vandalism on public lands managed by the Forest Service in eastern Idaho.
Everyone has a breaking point. I came to mine last week when, as I was leaving McCoy Creek in the Caribou National Forest, I noticed that a rock face had been defaced by a love-struck fool who wrote, in bright white ink, a heart of followed by the name of his girlfriend – “Cathy”.
This came after a fishing buddy and I spent some time breaching a man-made dam in the creek at a fairly familiar “swimming hole” – it used to be a beaver dam, but for today’s campers, apparently it wasn’t big enough. good . They hauled rocks from upstream and downstream, and built a complete stone wall across the stream. In my estimation, after nearly two decades of fisheries conservation work, the dam served as a significant upstream and downstream migration barrier for Utah’s native cutthroat trout and cutthroat. For what it’s worth, we also passed two piles of see-through toilet paper, one remarkably placed along the creek bank and the other between two new sets of ATV tracks where no official track can be found.
People are gross.
For the first time since I wrote a guidebook on the small waters of eastern Idaho some 20 years ago, I am publicly naming McCoy Creek. And I’m not “leaving” the area. Not any more. Judging by the use along the creek over the past 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 am bouncing between Forest Service law enforcement personnel to recreation officers in the Palisades Ranger District to various Caribou-Targhee National Forest office managers trying to figure out the best way to go. to report damage, clean it up and mitigate it and, most importantly, how to educate campers and other users of public lands on the ethics of going out on lands that belong to every single American.
Everyone has a right to visit McCoy Creek. It’s a tiny fraction of America’s vast public land wealth of 640 million acres—the envy of the world. As Americans, we own it, and a portion of our taxes goes to the Forest Service that serves as the manager of our property. But no one has the right to throw garbage.
To put a finer point on it, this land was once sacred to the Shoshone Nation. Colonialism is an ugly truth, but it is the truth nonetheless. At least we can show some respect for the lands that were once hunted, fished and trapped for a simple existence by a proud people – trashing it not only offends old white boys like me who love to fish and camp, but it’s a thorn in the side of every Native American whose ancestors enjoyed a far more symbiotic relationship with the land than you or I will ever fully understand.
And yet, since the COVID-19 pandemic began 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 can best be described as a living laboratory for the public lands experiment that Americans have enjoyed for more than a century. And for the first time in generations, that experiment may fail.
Why? Because doing without learning changes algebra. Who shows up for a camping trip with a can of spray paint? Someone who has never been educated … someone who does not know how to behave on the land that belongs to everyone. Like the person who could barely get off the ATV (on a newly created “trail”, no less) to take a dump.
In McCoy, everyone it can tow a camper or a fifth wheel up the rather useful road that leads into the hills. everyone who can find an open campsite can park a trailer or pitch a tent, sometimes painfully close to the creek. everyone can stay, for free, for 14 consecutive days.
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.
Honestly, this has been building for a few years. Last year, for the first time, I had some negative experiences in the woods with other people. And I’m not the argumentative type.
But the lack of education — just familiarity with the ethics associated with using public lands — is troubling. 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 way through the woods. No, you can’t threaten people who are going out of their way to give you space while they’re trying to do exactly what you’re doing.
And no, you can’t just leave trou and leave your stained TP behind as a monument to your bowel movement.
A McCoy Creek cutthroat trout (photo: Chad Shmukler).
Honestly, it’s about respect. Not just for other people, but respect for the land and water we are blessed with. Think about it. In North America alone you can wander 640 million acres of land without having to answer to a landowner, game warden or river warden. With the right licenses, you can fish, hunt, ride and even pan for firewood or pan for gold without having to ask a soul’s 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 at home. Express your love for Cathy by painting her across your back fence.
This new generation of public land users may be the factor that throws off an equation that has so far worked quite well. If this continues, or, God forbid, escalates, it could result in road and trail closures, a moratorium on scattered camps, or worse. The Forest Service may simply block access to the area in the name of preserving and rehabilitating fish and wildlife habitat.
That would be a terrible ramification. But as far as I can tell, we might deserve it.