Locked Out Of Our Own Land?

When I parked beside the locked gate at the Forest Service's recreation site, a hefty entrance sign that had been bolted together out of four-by-fours lay flat on the gravel. The steel tube where campers were supposed to deposit their fee had an autumn shade of rust spiraling up its trunk. A welcome sign had been replaced by one insisting that the road was closed.

Such a fine campground, decommissioned like so many others as public land agencies struggle to rein in their spending. 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 national forest facility in western Colorado, and I had cheerfully assumed that it would always be open, perennial as the wildflowers. Rarely crowded and located only a few miles downstream from a dam, this recreational campground served as an ideal fishing corridor and general pit stop, not to mention a place for quiet contemplation and restoration of the soul. I know, that's a lot to expect from a park, 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 was a ribbon of concrete that contractors had poured beside the river. It runs the entire length of the campground. At the time of its completion over 15 years ago, I thought, "Wow, the tax dollars must be as slippery as the fish—strictly catch and release." Now, the unnecessary walkway is striped with weeds. They might be green, but they sure don't resemble money.

Even more impressive is the high sandstone wall that looms across the river. An array of gunshots pock and mar its surface, but nothing short of a cataclysmic event could decommission this monolith made by nature. It was built by the kind of slow upheaval that bureaucrats will never understand. It requires no budget or maintenance. It's just rock, solid and inspirational.

Every Forest Service campground feature I encountered during this comeback tour qualified as being on the path to ruin. The concrete walls of the toilet had been bulldozed flat. The gravel ring road that serviced the campsites was losing its war with the weeds. Those cast-iron fire-rings at empty picnic sites gaped, reminding me of burned-out stars.

It may seem logical that as our public-land budgets are downsized, our accessibility to those lands must also be reduced, but logic doesn't originate in the heart. The public may no longer be able to afford rangers or the regular maintenance of hiking trails, visitor centers, museum displays, bookstores, brochures and trail guides, but if it all has to go, then let it go. Accessibility, however, should not be on the table, even if there are no tables.

Just give us a piece of gravel where we can park, and maybe a toilet. We'll provide the toilet paper and enough imagination to appreciate the unimproved natural world. If it's too expensive to maintain the toilets, we'll bear that, too.

Nothing is more frustrating than austerity, especially after we've had it all. Of course, nature might disagree. I saw disastrous changes when I arrived at this derelict campground, but I also happened to see them on a glorious afternoon. Everything woody was changing color for fall, wildflowers still speckled the landscape, and the sun poured through the thinly filtered canopy of trees, promising an unusually warm morning and a full-service afternoon, especially for mushrooms like puffballs.

It could be that the "public" isn't sophisticated enough to care for its public lands without a government agency to supervise it. It could also be that the passes, permits, stickers and policies in place had improved the public's access. But as I circled this overbuilt and now decaying campground, I couldn't help asking myself: 'How much of this stuff do we really need?' Show me a trail marker; I can find my way.

I yawned, feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle. As I made my way back to the truck, I uncovered the numbered post from what had been my favorite campsite, tossed into the weeds. I picked it up and took it home with me, then pounded it into the ground beside my driveway. It will be the proof that I have a genuine interest in calling our public lands my home.

David Feela is a former teacher and current writer in western Colorado.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.