August 2012

May Day for our public lands

By David Feela

When I parked beside the locked gate at the Cabin Canyon Recreation Site, the hefty entrance sign that had been bolted together out of 4-by-4 lay flat on the gravel, and the solid-steel, forest-green tube where campers are instructed to deposit their fees had an autumn shade of rust spiraling up its trunk. Motorized traffic was prohibited. The welcome sign had been replaced by one that insisted the road was closed.

Such a fine campground, decommissioned like so many others, while public land agencies struggle to rein in their spending, but I locked the truck anyway before climbing over the gate, just in case the ghosts of former campers had taken to haunting the premises.

Five years ago was the last time I’d stayed overnight at this San Juan National Forest facility, but I believed it would always be here, perennial as the wildflowers. Rarely crowded and located only a few miles downstream from the McPhee dam, this recreational campground served as an ideal fishing corridor, family water park, and general pit stop for the contemplation and restoration of the soul. I know, that’s a lot to expect from a park facility, but like much of the public, I spend a considerable amount of time worshipping at the chapel of our national forests.

One feature that always attracted me to this particular spot is a ribbon of concrete that contractors poured beside the river. It runs the entire length of the campground. At the time of its completion more than 15 years ago, I thought, Wow, the tax dollars must be as slippery as the fish, strictly catch-and- release. Now the walkway is bursting at its seams with a greenery that doesn’t resemble money.

Even more impressive is the massive sandstone wall that rises dramatically from the opposite riverbank. An array of gunshots pock and mar its surface, but nothing short of a cataclysmic event could decommission this monolithic feature. It has been built by the kind of pendular upheaval and downsizing bureaucrats will never understand. It requires no budget or maintenance. It’s just here, rock-solid and inspirational.

Every Forest Service campground feature I encountered during this comeback tour qualified as being on the short path to ruin. The slab concrete walls of the toilet had been bulldozed flat, to no one’s relief. The gravel ring-road that serviced the campsites was conscientiously being reclaimed by the weeds. Though the campsites themselves lacked campers and some of the picnic tables remained, all of those cast-iron fire rings gaped at me from the dirt and reminded me of burned-out stars.

It may seem logical that as our public lands budgets are downsized, our access must also be reduced, but logic doesn’t originate in the heart. Collectively known as the public, I may no longer be able to afford visitor centers, museum displays, bookstores, brochures and trail guides, souvenirs, showers, potable water, garbage pickup, interpretive plaques, or rangers. If it all has to go, then let it go. Accessibility, however, is not on the table, even if there are no tables. Just give me a piece of gravel where I can park and a toilet, if possible. I’ll provide my own toilet paper, and enough imagination to appreciate the unimproved natural world. If it’s too expensive to maintain the toilets, well, I can bare that too.

Nothing is more frustrating than austerity, especially after we’ve had it all.

Of course, nature might disagree. The May Day disaster I surveyed upon arriving at this derelict campground also happened to be a glorious Tuesday afternoon, May 1st – another kind of May Day. Everything woody was budding and spreading its leaves, wildflowers speckled the landscape, and the sun poured through the thinly filtered canopy of trees, promising an unusually warm spring and a full-service summer, especially for the serviceberries, chokecherries, and wild raspberries.

I know, maybe the public isn’t sophisticated enough to care for its public lands without a government agency to supervise it. The passes, permits, stickers, and policies in place were never intended to compromise the public’s access, but still, as I circled the campground I couldn’t help asking myself, How much of this stuff do we really need?]

I yawned, a bit like Rip Van Winkle must have felt, without a beard. As I made my way back to the truck, I uncovered the site post from my favorite campsite, uprooted and tossed into the weeds. I picked it up and took it home with me, then pounded it into the ground beside my driveway, just in case anyone who is official needs proof that I have a genuine interest in calling our public lands my home.

David Feela writes from Montezuma County, Colo.