Life seen through a keyhole

There is no end to the misery that’s allowed to fester because of the unfortunate tendency to think of one’s own experience as universal–“If I can do this, anyone can,” or “If I don’t see it, it can’t be real.”

Last month, I wrote about closures of dispersed camping sites along Colorado’s Front Range because–as explained by the U.S. Forest Service–boondockers had “created thousands of new campsites as they pulled off roads and damaged resources, trampling vegetation and compacting soils with tents, campers and vehicles” and had “negatively impacted municipal water supplies with human waste and trash.” But because those closures are near the heavily urbanized Denver area, apparently some readers concluded they a) aren’t really as bad as was represented; and b) are just another example of governmental overreach.

As one irritated RVer wrote, “This article reeks of incompetent government bureaucrats sniveling about having to do their jobs. My wife and I live in close proximity to southern Colorado and thus utilize Colorado public lands over quite a wide area. Sometimes we pull our travel trailer up there, sometimes we merely take an all-day drive on various backroads and 4×4 trails, but we always have an eye out for RV camping opportunities from which to base future exploration. Frankly, in the areas we’ve traveled, which include the mountains from a roughly 100 mile swath ranging from Cortez, Colorado, through Durango, and east to Pagosa Springs, we’ve noticed exactly the opposite.”

The swath this reader describes is along the southern flank of the San Juans, north of the Arizona border, and therefore quite a bit south of the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest affected by the closures I’d written about. It therefore may well be that boondockers have not caused the kinds of problems in this more remote area than they have 250 miles to the north–but so what? And what kind of egocentric irritation does it take to conclude that people this reader hasn’t met, dealing with a problem he hasn’t seen, are “incompetent” and simply “sniveling” about doing their jobs?

Yet while this reader looks at the world through a narrow keyhole, reality is moving in on him. Last week, the Colorado Sun reported that a surge in recreational camping around Buena Vista and Salida is “wreaking havoc on natural areas,” prompting public lands managers to mull the closure of dozens of dispersed campsites–and this is only February. According to the report, wildlife populations are plunging in the face of habitat loss and an increase in motorized recreation, ranchers are complaining of damaged fences and gates left open, poorly tended campfires are raising wildfire fears.

And, of course, there’s the ever-growing curse of what one district ranger calls “the Charmin flowers.”

Salida, it bears noting, is half the distance to my reader’s stomping ground than the area he blithely dismissed as an example of government incompetence. And as public lands managers try to contain and minimize the damage that’s already been done, one sure-fire consequence will be a broadening of the problem. As one noted, “It’s like squeezing a balloon–it expands elsewhere.” The area outside Durango and Pagosa Springs could be next.

The reasons for the explosion in boondocking are many and complex, from the unsustainable numbers of RVers seeking someplace to go “camping” to an explosion in people who can’t afford skyrocketing rents and real estate prices but still need a place to call home, however primitive. The solutions to these problems would be difficult in the best of circumstances; they’ll be made even more bitter by those who start by denying there’s anything wrong in the first place, then pivot to blaming the people charged with fixing things as incompetent–presumably because that may inconvenience them.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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