Overprotecting our back yard

Essay by Steve Voynick

Public Land – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

The perception of our national forests largely depends on who’s perceiving. If you live in New York City, L.A., or even Denver, the national forests are some distant, out-of-sight, out-of-mind tracts of federally owned land, conveniently managed by the government.

But if you live in places like Saguache, Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, Fairplay, or Westcliffe, the national forests are our back yards and a way of life — our turf.

San Isabel National Forest covers 1,900 square miles from Leadville to well south of Westcliffe. Add the adjoining districts of White River, Gunnison, Pike, and Rio Grande national forests, and our back yards amount to about 4,000 square miles — an area two-thirds the size of New Jersey — of pine forests, peaks, ridges, cliffs, aspen groves, creeks, and high meadows.

We use our back yards for hiking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, exploring, four-wheeling, rock collecting, climbing, skiing, mountain-biking, snowshoeing, and for a special place to be on those days when you know damned well you shouldn’t be around a highway, a telephone, or people. Proximity to our national forests is a big reason we live here.

But the United States Forest Service, custodian and administrator of 360,000 square miles of national forests across the country, wants to change the way we use our back yards. On Feb. 16, 1994, the Forest Service wrote into the Federal Register twelve pages of proposed new regulations governing use of the forests.

AMONG THE MANY THINGS the Forest Service wishes to ban or restrict, upon district order, are possession of firearms (apart from legal hunting purposes), possession of glass containers (primarily beer bottles), making loud noises, shooting out car windows, fighting, and using language that may be construed to be obscene or threatening.

But consider the national forests from the perception of the Forest Service. On summer holiday weekends, undermanned Forest Service officials cope regularly with drunken, armed clowns screaming epithets that would make Clint Eastwood characters think twice. No joke. I know a former Leadville district ranger who told horror stories about campground behavior.

As justification for its new rules proposal, the Forest Service cites increasing use of the national forests, coupled with a reduction in federal funding. This makes adequate supervision and protection difficult.

There’s no question about pressure from increased visitation and use. When the U.S. Forest Service took over the federal forest reserves in 1905, the U.S. population was 80 million. Today it’s 255 million for the same amount of forest. Recreation visitor-days in the national forests rose from 234 million in 1980 to 263 million in 1990 — a 12 percent increase when the population grew by only 9 percent.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service is over-reacting, following a trend toward bigger and more intrusive government. Consider these clauses in its sweeping proposed regulations, which would cover all national forests: disturbing or damaging any paleontological (fossil) resource, removing any mineral or mineral resources, and buying, selling, or bartering, or offering to buy, sell, or barter, any natural feature or any other property of the United States.

But existing law already protects vertebrate fossils, and many areas with valuable mineral or fossil resources have already been withdrawn from public use. In essence, the Forest Service wants to ban casual mineral collecting, or “rockhounding,” one of the most basic and traditional recreational uses of the national forests.

As the proposals are written, picking up a rock in the national forests would be illegal. Technically, a hiker or collector who saw an interesting rock would have to file a plan of operation with the district ranger, wait for review (weeks, months?), then, upon approval, return and collect the aforementioned rock. All of the proposed regulations are subject to “special permission or written authorization.”

Asinine? You bet. Enforcement of the “buy, sell, barter” ruling, for example, would be impossible, since rocks found in national forests have a striking resemblance to rocks found on adjoining BLM or private lands.

BUT THE REAL ISSUE of concern is more government regulation, part of the trend away from public land use and toward public land protection. The Forest Service can much more effectively address its problems with specific target-oriented regulations, rather than broad, and inherently unenforceable, rules, all of which will curtail your use of your backyard.

The public-comment period on the proposed new regulations ended in late May, but the decision should not come before September. The Forest Service and your elected representatives, who are paid to listen, would still like to know your views. Write your representatives or to Jack Ward, Chief of Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box 96090, Washington DC 20090-6090.

If you live in New York, L.A., or Denver, don’t bother to write, but if you live around here, it’s our back yard, and our way of life, that they’re going to regulate.

Steve Voynick of Leadville is author of Colorado Rockhounding, as well as many other works of mineral and mining lore.