Mountain lions to the rescue–not!

News coverage of what’s known as the “urban-wildlife” interface–that area beyond the inner suburbs but before wilderness, in which people build homes in an untamed landscape–tends to focus on the growing risk from wildfires. And with good reason. High heat and prolonged drought have greatly increased the odds that homes in the urban-wildlife interface, especially in the western U.S., will be be torched by wildfires that each year are consuming areas larger in aggregate than several eastern states.

Less publicized, however, has been the growing interface conflict between humans and wild animals–the former sometimes exploiting the latter for cynical purposes. I don’t mean the occasional headline-grabber, like the recent mountain lion attack in California on a hiker and her dog. I mean the wholesale invocation of a threatened species to justify a political decision, usually over something to do with housing, and usually resulting in still more pressure on public lands–whether on city streets or in national forests–as people scramble for shelter. The upshot, ironically, is that both people and wildlife end up the losers.

Exhibit A is a recent but long overdue decision by Vail Resorts to build housing for 165 of its ski-resort employees in Colorado, where the company’s success in attracting a high-dollar clientele has in turn driven housing costs in the area so high that its employees can’t afford to live where they work. Many, indeed, end up boondocking in vans and tents in surrounding national forests, in a scene reminiscent of medieval peasants sleeping in a castle’s stables and animal pens. But Vail town officials, who you might think would be supportive of such a plan, are in fact actively fighting against it.

Claiming that the land Vail Resorts wants to use for its proposed low-cost apartments is a wintering site for bighorn sheep, the town this month voted to start condemnation proceedings for the property–even though it had previously approved the project. And even though–and one might suppose this is the real problem–a number of luxury homes already occupy the sheep habitat that is causing so much concern, some developed fairly recently.

That same pattern–of claiming to protect wildlife to keep low and middle-income housing out of upper-income enclaves–is on even more nauseating display in Woodside, California, where the listed median home price is $5.7 million. California has, in fact, the highest real estate prices in the country, sustained to a large extent by restrictive zoning laws that make it impossible for sufficient low- and moderate-priced housing to be constructed, giving the state the dubious distinction of also having the largest number of homeless people living on its streets.

Seeking to address the housing shortage, the state enacted a law that took effect Jan. 1 making it easier for homeowners to split their lots, convert their homes to duplexes or build second units on their property. Posh towns and cities reacted by scrambling to find ways to block an imagined invasion of thousands of new, scruffier citizens, such as Pasadena’s decision to declare swaths of the city as “landmark districts” and therefore beyond the new law’s reach. But Woodside, apparently not in a position to do likewise, took the dance to a brand new level: it claimed that the entire town is a mountain lion sanctuary.

Or as observed by Joe Garofoli, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle: “You know, because mountain lions like to live large in the burbs. Or something like that.”

Woodside got slapped down by the state’s attorney general, Rob Bonita, and rightly so, while the ongoing conflict over bighorn sheep in Colorado–whose numbers are declining, in part because of inadequate wintering grounds–is more nuanced. But both cases illustrate a growing tendency toward using wildlife as a bargaining chip by monied interests, almost invariably to the detriment of working class people and the animals themselves, and it’s not a stretch to predict that more such examples are coming.

Because, you know, people with money like to live large in places that are home to wildlife, without really thinking about what that means for the wildlife itself. Or anyone else.

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Dyrt-y facts about camping in 2022

The Dyrt, a rapidly growing web site and mobile app, is possibly the country’s most comprehensive platform for the camping public–which means, in turn, that The Dyrt’s users may comprise the country’s broadest demographic profile of the camping public. So when The Dyrt’s users have their temperature taken, it pays for other industry participants to take notice.

But first, some context. The Dyrt has listings of 44,000 public and private campgrounds and “other properties” that accept RVers and tenters. Last year the site pulled in more than 27 million visitors, more than doubling its 11.8 million visitors in 2020. More than a million of those visitors have been sharing tips and reviews on the site, and this past December, 3,000 of them–selected at random–responded to a far-ranging questionnaire about themselves and their experiences. An additional 2,000 respondents, chosen to be census-representative by age, race, gender and region, also were questioned, by two third-party organizations.

The result, released earlier this month, is the statistically most meaningful picture of what it’s like to go camping in America that the industry has produced to date. Some of its findings are by nature unsurprising–it’s their size or extent that may catch your breath. Other conclusions are disconcerting, to say the least. Among the highlights:

The camping “season” isn’t–camping is on the rise every month of the year, but no more so than in winter, up 40.7% since 2019. Camping is also less and less of just a weekend event, with 70% of campers now taking trips that include weekdays. Some of that growth is fueled by the rise in remote working, with the number of campers toting their laptops with them nearly tripling since 2018–in fact, The Dyrt notes, 23.8% of campers worked from a campsite last year.

The inevitable result, as most campers already know: it really has become a lot harder to book a campground. Nearly half of all campers reported difficulty finding available campsites in 2021, including 47% on the West Coast and 48% in the Mountain West and southwest; at the opposite end of the spectrum, of those trying to book a New England campground, only 37% reported difficulty. Overall, three times as many campers said they had trouble booking a site in 2021 as in 2019.

What or how you camp had a lot to do with how much trouble you had. Tenters had only twice as much difficulty in 2021, at 37%, compared with 18% in 2019. Motorhome and Class C campers, meanwhile, saw their comparable numbers soar to 51% from 14%, while those towing trailers weighed in at 55% and 16%, respectively.

Here’s the disconcerting part: frustrated by the overcrowding at conventional campgrounds, that unprecedented flood of campers is now washing over the backcountry. The number of boondockers looking for “dispersed camping” doubled in just one year, The Dyrt reported, adding that the four most-saved “campgrounds” on its app in 2021 were all dispersed-camping areas: Blue Lakes in Colorado, Edge of the World in Arizona, Shadow Mountain in Wyoming and Alabama Hills, California.

All four, it needs to be noted, have become severely degraded. Alabama Hills, on the eastern slope of the High Sierra and a much sought-after Hollywood shooting location, had to be closed down late last year because it was trashed so badly. The damage came despite an “Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit” held the previous February, in which half-a-dozen local groups managing public land in the area brainstormed strategies to prevent a repeat of the “carnage” from 2020, to little avail.

At Shadow Mountain, as another example, as many as 400 people can be camped in an area that has only one bathroom–back at the road entrance. Forest managers say the area’s occupancy has tripled in four years, from about 30% in 2016 to 91% last year. Human waste is the most obvious resulting problem, but officials also worry about poor food storage habits leading to increased wildlife-human conflicts.

That’s not the kind of information that will turn up in a search of The Dyrt. Nor will The Dyrt’s data base account for the growing number of “non-recreational campers,” which is land manager-speak for transient retirees, displaced families and homeless individuals. The western states with the most available land for boondocking also have some of the country’s highest housing costs–and among the highest rates of homelessness. People have to live somewhere. . . .

There’s no reason, alas, to think that any of these trends will soften in 2022.

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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.

Boondock–or boondoggle?

Back in the day, when my legs had considerably more spring in them and I could backpack all day long, I would head into the backcountry for a week or 10 days or–on one memorable expedition–two weeks at a time, carrying everything I needed on my back. It was a point of pride for me not to have to resupply, so the 45-55 pounds I allowed myself had to include not just my tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove, but all my food and stove fuel and sufficient clothing for any weather I might encounter. The only thing for which I had to turn to my environment was for water, and in those days, drought was less of a limiting factor.

The attraction of all that hardship, which I could never adequately explain to my non-hiking co-workers, was the solitude and self-sufficiency I could carve out for myself. I could go days without seeing another soul–or if I did, odds were it was someone just as willing as I to pass by with a quick smile and brief nod of recognition. Or to stop for a 15-minute chat about the weather or the country ahead. I could hike north or south as the mood suited me, spend hours just lazing beside a stream or put in a body-testing 20-mile day, stretch out at night to look at a star-studded sky or roll over to make the day’s journal entry.

I tried to pass through the high country without leaving a mark because I wanted to leave the land as beautiful and restorative as I had found it, but also because doing so fit my sense of what it meant to be self-sufficient. To me, it meant that no one else would have to repair or clean-up after me. It meant not taking that which could not be replaced. It meant being non-intrusive, in order to preserve that sense of solitude for which I had gone searching.

Yet even on those remote pilgrimages I would encounter disturbing signs that not everyone felt the same way. Fire pits that hadn’t been dispersed, rocks blackened and cracked from the heat. Slash marks and cuts on trees, frequently live ones, where someone had swung a hatchet for tinder or firewood. Most disturbing of all were the piles of human feces just lying in the open, often still festooned with toilet paper, with no effort made to bury this most arrogant display of human hubris. Or maybe it was just heedlessness.

I think about these things when I read or hear about RVers promoting boondocking as a way to get away from too many other RVers, from over-crowded campgrounds and from the high (and rising!) cost of finding a spot with a power pedestal and hydrant. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency and how to make resources last, from gas generators and solar panels for electricity to capturing grey water for toilet flushing to various tricks for staying cool in the heat and warm when it’s cold. Sometimes, at the extremes, all the chatter takes on a somewhat paranoid survivalist sheen that makes me wonder about other people’s fantasy lives.

The uncomfortable fact is that some boondockers will be like the solitary hikers I would sometimes encounter with a nod and a smile, but too many others will be of the poop-on-the-side-of-the-trail variety. They’ll leave ruts across fragile or muddy soils, shatter the night stillness with their electric generators, dump their grey water (hopefully not the black!) wherever it suits them because, well, they’re out in “nature.” They’ll leave fire-scarred rocks and half-burnt stumps, demolished vegetation and food litter, like orange peels and egg shells, because that too is “natural” or “organic.”

The facts also are that even the most conscientious boondockers will be unable to avoid scarring the land on which they’re camping. Not when they’re driving 5,000- to 25,000-pound wheeled houses onto unpaved and uncleared ground, squatting in one place for five or seven days–if not longer–until they’re forced to move on in search of fresh water or a dump station. And while it may seem like there’s an awful lot of land out there for the boondockers to settle on, and so whatever damage they may inflict will be dispersed and only minimally visible, in reality the boondocker population is exploding and the land they’re seeking is much more limited than they imagine.

It’s hard for many people to accept the fact that we humans, small and insignificant as we are, could possibly have so great an effect on this seemingly limitless planet as to cause global warming of catastrophic dimensions. So, too, will it be difficult for many boondockers to accept that their attempt at self-sufficiency will likewise destroy the very environment they’ve sought out, one rut and one splintered tree at a time.

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