The message below was posted September 10 in our Facebook group Crowded Campgrounds by a representative of New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest. I doubt very much the readers of this newsletter would contribute to this sort of trashing of our public lands. I suggest that if you have any place to pass along this story – on your social media page, for example – please do so; perhaps it will help spread the word that this sort of behavior is unacceptable. —C Woodbury, editor
This past weekend, the National Forest was met with significant feedback on the state of the forest in areas such as Bluff Springs outside of Cloudcroft. Many people were upset and angry about what they saw and, to be frank, so were we.
Over the last several months, we have tried a number of things to keep these areas pristine for you to enjoy, but we are running out of options.
As we’ve all experienced, 2020 has been an abnormal year and has impacted the National Forest significantly. With state parks closed to non-residents, the racetrack closed, and all of the fishing areas at capacity, visitation has exploded in the Lincoln National Forest. Over Labor Day weekend, we estimated 30,000 visitors came to the forest and nearby towns, many of which did not follow the Leave No Trace principles, which means leaving this shared space free of garbage and properly picking camping spots so as to not harm the forest.
To put this number in perspective, our entire forest recreation staff is 14 people and we have 2 law enforcement officers to cover 1.1 million acres. Our crews work hard to protect your public land, but we can’t keep up any longer given the sheer amount of trash, abandoned campfires and vandalism we are seeing.
What We’ve Tried
The Forest Service’s mission is first and foremost to protect the health of the forest, not to pick up trash. Like all of our forest, Bluff Springs has always been a “Pack It In – Pack It Out” area and until just a few months ago, there were no trash services there at all because people respected the land and cleaned up after themselves.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began back in March and the country knew little about the disease, Bluff Springs was closed via an official forest closure order. We locked the restrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as instructed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We experienced people breaking into restrooms and stuffing their trash inside and into the toilets. Our crew was tasked with cleaning it up.
More and More Dumpsters
To avoid any more vandalism, we reopened sites across the forest and had “animal resistant” dumpsters placed at various sites. A few days later, the dumpsters were overflowing, so we doubled up on the dumpsters. The same thing occurred: overflowing trash almost immediately. Once again, we increased the size of the dumpsters to full-size roll-offs, which costs $400 per week, per dumpster, to maintain at these No-Fee locations. Every dollar spent on removing trash takes away from other projects. The forest has paid to haul away multiple full-sized couches, loveseats, chairs, stoves, tools and other outlandish items in addition to the literal tons of trash removed each week.
‘We have never before seen this level of complete disregard for nature by people who come to enjoy it and we, as a whole, are disheartened by it.’
Our crews still continue to dedicate their time to clean these areas, taking away precious time to help improve other areas of the forest. At Bluff Springs and nearby camp spots it took our crews 8 hours to pick up the trash on the ground by hand, which equated to three dump truck loads, four pickup loads, and two flatbed trailers in addition to the roll-off dumpster… and that was just from the post-Labor Day weekend clean up. We hoped that people would do the right thing and not leave their trash on the ground for wildlife to eat and become sick; but that has not been the case.
We have also increased patrols and enlisted the help of our county sheriff offices to help police highly recreated areas, but they cannot be everywhere all the time.
The overuse and extensive trash are damaging the forest and putting wildlife at risk. The more dumpsters we put out, the more the trash seems to grow. Therefore, a task force has been established to come up with options on how best to manage these sites in these unprecedented times. We are reviewing several options but are also considering closing these areas in an effort to address these ongoing challenges. The areas have once again been cleaned up, but we know it’s only a matter time before we will need to go back out unless something changes.
What You Can Do
It is up to all of us to take care of the forest. With that being said, we are asking you to do one simple thing: Take your trash with you. Please help us spread the word to Pack It In – Pack It Out. Do not leave trash in the forest, even if it’s next to a dumpster. Trash bags break easily, and animals will get into them. If you wish to do more, the public can help by volunteering at National Public Lands Day clean-up projects taking place later this month. The forest is not a dumping ground; it is a beautiful place filled with wildlife, flowers, streams, and trees that rely on you to do your part and LEAVE NO TRACE.