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Wreckreation, Public Lands, and the Fecal Timebomb

Photograph Source: Daniel Case – CC BY-SA 3.0

It is to be expected that New York City dwellers who had no fealty to urban life in the first place but were there only to fellate Capital for position, affluence and conspicuous display should now head a hundred miles north into my country, the Catskill Mountains, under the pressure of the Great Pandemic Terror of 2020.

From what I can tell, though I may be wrong, these folks are cartoon-like (a wittle bug chased them from their wittle homes in the golden city) and they usually consist of a witless husband with a harridan wife who has it all figured out.  The man-boy follows behind the wife on the visits to the properties. It sounds like a cliché of the movies but the scene is acted daily.

Real estate values skyrocket as the yupster human simulacra from Brooklyn run to the redoubt of the mountains. Prices for shacks in the woods with a helping of mold and a side of dry rot fetch obscene prices in bidding wars.   Houses in flood plains are bought up.   Old falling-down farmsteads that once grew enormous volumes of food are fought over by tech entrepreneurs from Brooklyn Heights who know nothing about the health or meaning of soil.

If you are a cynical slavering parasitic degenerate with no moral compass, which is to say a real estate investor, you will say this is all good.   Prices go up, up, up.

It’s as nauseating as whenever irrational behavior dominates.  The yupsters are desperate and afraid but also demanding.  The newbies in the streets of my village, Margaretville, want high end restaurants.  They want more services.  Affluenza-sickened – affluenza being the truly dangerous virus – they want always More.

Well, they’ve got it.  There is more everywhere now.  More people crowded in the local supermarket, and on the trails, and at the swimming holes, and ever more traffic speeding faster on what were once quiet roads.

On the trails of the public lands of the Catskills there is more trash too, more than I have ever seen in three decades of hiking and camping in these woods.   Also more feces.  People are shitting along the trails of the Catskill Park in record numbers.  Their shit, along with their piss, stinks.  They don’t even bother to burn their toilet paper.  These bastards simply leave it in the woods.  Shit-smeared baby wipes, shit-smeared bandannas, shit-smeared tissue paper – artifacts of the rush to recreate.

I climb the mountains with my eight-year-old daughter and have taught her a new term: toilet head.  “Goddamn New Yorker toilet heads,” I tell Josie in a moment of pique.  “This is my goddamn forest!  My woods!”

“No, Daddy,” she replies.   “You’ve always told me it’s not yours.  You said,
‘Who owns the forest?’  No one owns the forest!  You said, ‘Who owns the air?’  Nobody!  ‘Who owns the water?’  Nobody!  ‘Who owns the sun?’  Nobody!”

I stare at her, impressed but also annoyed (because she is speaking truth that I can’t deny, and also wish I could take forty or fifty hours to digress with her about the tragedy of the commons), and I reply, “Yes, yes, yes, but—”

“No, Daddy, you said it was your forest and it’s not your forest.”

“But the shit everywhere – I mean – don’t say that, don’t say what I said – bad word—”

“Daddy, you said it.”

“I mean people pooping.   The poople people.”

We laugh.  “But daddy,” Josie says, deeply reflective now, “we’re the poople people too.”

“It’s my forest, okay?   I don’t want too many of us poople people coming into it.”

“But Daddy—”

“Now be quiet, listen.  The wind.  In the firs.  Listen.”  We were high now on the mountain, in the boreal forest, in the sweetened air of the balsam firs.

She says, “It sounds like the ocean.”  And then, “But Daddy, what about a poople people song we can sing?”

I sing an old Zappa tune, amended for the occasion:

WE ARE THE POOPLE PEOPLE

WE ARE THE POOPLE PEOPLE

YOU’RE THE POOPLE PEOPLE TOO!

FOUND A WAY TO GET TO YOU!

 ***

As I was penning this miserable complaint, my pal Chris Zinda, a former National Park Service administrator turned public lands activist, sent me a tweet from Outside that linked to an August 23 article in the magazine. “Categorically, none of us are doing a great job about planning for bathroom breaks,” reported Outside.  “Across the country, rangers have had to re-close public land because of poop. The state of Utah had to build a websiteoutlining where and how to relieve yourself, because catholes and human feces are dotting the landscape. We are literally leaving our shit everywhere.”

Of course, none of this is a problem at a small scale.  A few hikers widely dispersed in time and across a vast landscape will not produce excess damage to an ecosystem such that the biotic community and the air, soil and water that provides for the life of that community are impaired.

The shit storm erupts only when you have mass recreation, enormous volumes of visitors.   Consider the “fecal timebomb” in Utah’s Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains, where the Associated Press reported last year that “Forest rangers and residents are worried that an increase of visitors…is resulting in more human feces in watershed streams amid E. coli fears…Central Wasatch Commission officials are questioning if visitation to the Wasatch canyons has reached a tipping point as more people venture out to the canyons for recreation.”

“The public turd lands,” says Zinda.  “I dealt with it a lot when I was in Utah.   I used to take pictures of the shit in the canyons.   Everywhere you went, you saw it.”

Zinda worked for the National Park Service for close to ten years.  He was posted at Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, Yosemite in California, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah, and, for six years – his longest stint for the park service – Capitol Reef National Park in the Utah canyonlands.  The heart of the matter, he says, has always been one of determining the human carrying capacity of any particular landscape.

In Utah’s fragile canyons, where the rare lovely riparian corridors attract the great majority of hikers, the carrying capacity is likely very low.  But do the land management agencies there bother to enforce limits on visitation?  Broadly, has the Park Service, to focus on just the one agency, bothered to fund a rational, science-based study of carrying capacity?   Of course not.  Because it is the implicit goal of all land management agencies, state and federal, to encourage increases in visitation, as this is considered a point of pride, a marker of successful management, a litmus test of the importance of a public land parcel, and, most importantly, can be used to petition lawmakers for more funding, which obviously is the means for bureaucratic job security.

Look at all the people we’ve brought in, the land managers tell Congress. The shit (though they don’t say this) is a visceral sign of public interest – as the water, roiling with E. coli, becomes undrinkable.

In Oregon, where Zinda now lives, the situation is not unlike the one now unfolding in my beloved Catskills. There’s always more shit as the great mass of wreckreationists converge on the land.  “Problems with trash and human waste accumulation have become insurmountable,” the Oregon Department of Forestry concluded last May.  The forestry department that month made the extraordinary decision of closing off large areas to recreation.  “Unfortunately,” said Oregon state forester Peter Daugherty, “the current conditions are hazardous to the public and our employees.”

Ponder that a moment: there was such an excess of human feces that it presented a health hazard.  So much for the lie that mass recreation on public lands – a lie disseminated as much by the National Park Service as by green groups and conservationists of all stripes – is a harmless activity.

Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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