Commentary: Why can’t we all respect the outdoors without behaving badly?

Commentary: Why can’t we all respect the outdoors without behaving badly?

Commentary: Why can’t we all respect the outdoors without behaving badly?

With a colorful history dating back 55 million years, the Paint Mines Interpretive Park 30 miles northeast of Colorado Springs is a geological jewel.

Featuring stunning but fragile sandstone formations, it’s a landscape that humans have visited for at least 9,000 years. Native Americans once collected its red, yellow and purple clays to make paint (hence the name).

But like so many special places in Colorado, it is under attack by reckless visitors who are causing irreversible damage.

Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition of the Pikes Peaks region, said her group sees “horrific” photos of people climbing on the brittle sandstone. Some of the area’s hoodoos — statue-like pillars of rock that take millions of years to form — have been toppled.

“(There is) some graffiti as well, but the main concern was pieces of rocks that were falling because people were doing stupid stuff,” Davies said. “We keep our fingers crossed that this will have a good outcome, because these are very fragile geological formations that have been there millions of years. All it takes is somebody climbing over the top of them, this stuff is so fragile it will start chipping. It’s very brittle sandstone.”

Scenes like this are playing out all over Colorado — and they’re happening more often.

Related: Landowner who closed fourteeners says he wants to reopen them

“These things are happening across the forest,” said Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, “and were worse last year than ever before.”

They also are a relatively recent phenomenon. Josh Voorhis, South Park district ranger for the Pike and San Isabel National Forest headquartered in Fairplay, said it’s been happening for about 10 years.

“There were always random acts, but now it’s consistent,” Voorhis said. “It’s something different out there. It’s kind of baffling.”

The question is why. It’s too easy to say the pandemic drove newcomers into nature and they didn’t know how to behave when they got there. Why would anyone think it’s OK to leave trash at a campsite, or dog waste on trails? Why would anyone think it’s OK to spray paint initials on a tree, or steal the sign pointing to the fourteener they just climbed so they can take it home as a souvenir? Voorhis said it’s become almost pointless to replace those signs because the new ones probably will just disappear, too.

Related: Public lands managers bracing for another season of crowded trails, overflowing parking lots

“For a lot of folks, it’s about ‘me,’ ” said Voorhis, whose district includes the land around four popular fourteeners, Lincoln, Democrat, Cameron and Bross. “We’re seeing a lot of not respecting the trail system, cutting switchbacks, taking shortcuts. I’m certainly seeing increases in vandalism, to federal property or on private land — people breaking into mines, destroying buildings. It’s been pretty astonishing, the activities that are occurring. And it’s not just on the fourteeners. We’re seeing it occur elsewhere on public lands as well.”

That “me-first” attitude is running rampant. Even in my teens, it never would have occurred to me to be so disrespectful of others, but these are different times. We see it on our highways. We see it in the tone of our political conflicts. There are more knuckleheads out there than ever before, and now they’re trashing our sacred places in nature.

“I don’t know what changed,” Davies said. “Is it because it’s cool to take a selfie next to whatever you vandalized? We see people taking selfies doing backflips off the Paint Mines — which is crazy, a good way to get killed — but really? You know you’re not supposed to do that. But is it just about self-aggrandizement? That ‘me attitude,’ ‘It’s all about me,’ ‘This is all here for my pleasure,’ ‘I don’t have to leave it the way I found it.’ “

In the spectacular Ice Lakes area near Silverton last summer, hikers built campfires on sensitive alpine tundra, stealing wood from historic mining structures for fuel. Human waste was left around the edge of a stunning turquoise-colored lake that deserves to be left pristine.

In the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests — which run from Jefferson County to the Wyoming border along the Continental Divide, excluding Rocky Mountain National Park — wildfires ran rampant last year. Yet law enforcement officers wrote 13 times more citations for illegal campfires than usual, according to Aaron Mayville, the deputy forest supervisor. People spray-painted and carved trees to leave their marks. Garbage was left in latrines and at campsites.

“We’ve always had bad apples,” Mayville said. “We’re just seeing a lot more of them. There definitely is a different ethic out there. Whether that’s a generation thing, combined with the fact that there are just a lot more out there … . There’s always been jerks who take down signs, but we’re definitely seeing more of it.”

The historic Magnolia Mill has stood at the foot of Mount Lincoln near Hoosier Pass for more than 150 years. Now it’s a target for vandalism.

“We put up signs, we put up information posters,” Voorhis said. “We’ve had kids from a local school paint drawings so we can put them on plywood and put up the plywood to try to keep the public out (of the mill). Members of the public — of course not everyone, but a select few — were using the mill as a restroom and tearing things apart. They’ve torn holes through the walls to get into the mill. It’s baffling.”

If you’re thinking we need more patrols and better enforcement, dream on. Voorhis and officials of other national forests say they don’t have the manpower because of budget cuts. Voorhis has only two permanent employees on his recreation staff to maintain trails, trailheads, roads and campgrounds in a district that sprawls over a half a million acres just an hour’s drive from the population centers of Denver and Colorado Springs.

He’s been with the forest service for 31 years and has never seen anything like this.

“This is the first time that no matter how hard we work, all the employees on this district, the resource condition is getting worse,” Voorhis said. “We can’t fix things fast enough, so the condition on the ground is getting worse every year. And there’s nothing we can do to fix that right now. We just don’t have the people.”

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Commentary: Why can’t we all respect the outdoors without behaving badly?