Near a rock formation twisting into the Arizona sky, the desert floor has been torn up by off-road vehicles. A tattered VCR and a bullet-riddled washing machine further scar the landscape.
Tonto is one of many national forests that suffer environmental damage caused by thoughtless, even unscrupulous, visitors.
And the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the cash or manpower to tackle the problem. The agency’s spending this year has yet to be calculated, but its proposed budget represented a 2.5 percent drop in funding, said spokeswoman Angela Coleman.
Fighting wildfires eats up about 40 percent of the agency’s budget, forcing cutbacks in other areas, said Cecilia Clavet, who researches Forest Service issues for the Wilderness Society in Washington D.C.
“You have projects that are not taking place, you have areas that are not managed,” she said. “You have fewer educational programs that take place to educate people that use the forest.”
Though growing numbers are visiting the Colville National Forest near Spokane, Wash., there aren’t enough employees to patrol its 400 undeveloped campsites, said recreation specialist Nan Berger. What once was a summer staff of six to eight workers has dwindled to only two.
Even forests far from big cities are affected.
The annual cost of dealing with trash in the developed areas of the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana and eastern Idaho has escalated from $5,000 to $12,000 during the past decade, said Mary Laws, a recreation program manager there. Meanwhile, four workers lost their jobs because of budget cuts.
“It’s a matter of having to do more with less,” Laws said.
The last survey tracked about 700,000 visits to the Bitterroot in 2003, but the numbers have gone up by at least 10 percent, she said.
While visitation is falling off, the number of people taking off-road vehicles into forests has increased — reaching about 11 million visits recently. Fewer young people are participating in such traditional outdoor activities as hiking, opting instead for the thrills of off-road sport, said Francisco Valenzuela, a recreation program manager based in Washington D.C.
“So you see, you can have fewer per-capita visits but more damage to the forests overall if there isn’t careful management,” Valenzuela said.
Onus on the visitors?
Some argue that the estimated 200 million people who visit the national forests each year should shoulder most of the responsibility for protecting the environment.
“When people are out they’re responsible for their own well-being. They’re responsible for their own vehicles and everything else,” said Jim Payne, spokesman for the agency’s Southwest region. “It really has to come down to population increases, personal responsibility and respect.”
Some forests have turned to novel solutions to their problems.
Officials at the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, for example, initiated a cleanup effort by inviting the public to scavenge the forest for valuable items such as copper, which could be sold as scrap.
‘It gets worse each year’
Other forests solicit help from environmental groups which organize cleanup expeditions, do maintenance on damaged trails and rehabilitate land damaged by off-road vehicles.
“In some places it literally looks like the apocalypse,” said Arizona Sierra Club chairman Jim Vaaler, who sometimes organizes cleanups in local forests. “Forest Service people are expected to use the volunteer base, but you can only use them so much. They can be part of the trash solution, but not a huge part of the solution.”
Flagstaff scoutmaster Chuck Sundland said he often finds beer bottles, paper plates and, sometimes, vandalized campsites when camping with his Boy Scouts in Arizona’s national forests.
“It’s disgusting and it gets worse each year,” he said.