“How many are you up to?” one of the crew members asks me. The two have finished taking measurements regarding the campsite – one of many we would visit on this wilderness monitoring hitch.
“You’re already at 50? It hardy looks like you’ve moved any rocks,” the other replies, gazing at the gigantic fire ring. They begin to haul off rocks, too, counting all the while. We also sift through the ashes and pack out bits of burnt aluminum foil and cans – the most common litter because of the fact that people seem to think metal just disintegrates in the fire. (It doesn’t).
Wilderness monitoring is about more than just dismantling poorly placed fire rings. The San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests have data on human impact in designated wilderness areas that goes back to the 1980s. This data is collected mainly by seasonal interns and volunteers with assistance from a Forest Service employee. But over the past few years, funding cuts have forced the SJNF and RGNF to get creative. The San Juan Mountains Association has been partnering with these forests to make sure this important program remains intact.
National forests and other public land managers have an obligation to monitor human impact in federally designated wilderness areas. This is to ensure the areas maintain their wilderness character in which “man is just a visitor who does not remain,” as the Wilderness Act decrees.
How hard is it to assess human impact? There might be more to it than you think. The monitoring crew uses the “Cole Impact Assessment Form” to monitor each campsite. This form considers factors such as the percent of soil exposed within the site compared to the natural area around the site, as well as tree damage, cleanliness, number of fire rings and other structures, size of site and number of social trails. Everything adds up to a number that quantifies how impacted the site is. Sites range from Class 1 (minimal impact) to Class 5 (heavily impacted). Class 5 campsites are marked as closed so that nature can rehabilitate the damage. A Class 5 site severely degrades the wilderness character of the area, and the main point of having designated wilderness is to keep it as natural as possible.
Delightfully, some sites fall out of favor over time and are taken back by nature. The monitoring crew sometimes spends several minutes trying to find the site indicated by the GPS. These naturally rehabilitated sites might contain vague remnants of an ancient fire scar or might be grown over by saplings and are completely unnoticeable.
Wilderness monitoring is an interesting and rewarding task in addition to being physically challenging. Sometimes, we can’t believe the GPS is taking us to a habitable spot as we find thorn bushes tearing into our flesh and fallen trees and marshes hindering our progress. After an arduous search, we might find ourselves 500 feet away from the trail on the other side of a river. But there, in the middle of wilderness, we may find a perfect campsite. We certainly make mental notes of which sites we want to return to in our free time.
Once we are finally done dismantling the gargantuan fire ring, we add our totals. One hundred thirty-three. Someone (or two or more) built a massive fire ring more than 5 feet in diameter and consisting of 133 rocks ranging in size from about that of a pika to that of a sleeping fox. The fire ring sat 100 feet from Los Piños River, the minimum distance that a site needs to be from water in order to be legally allowable. A savvy camper may have measured this out and concluded the campsite was legal. But on our visit during the dust and drought of early July 2018, there was a small creek just 20 feet away that was flowing with cool mountain water. If the stream contained water under these drought conditions, it likely held water for most of the year. We needed to break down this fire ring to discourage future parties from camping here.
People should not camp within 100 feet of a water source, but not just because of the regulation. (Leave No Trace principles recommend camping at least 200 feet from any water source if possible.) There are ethical reasons behind regulations. In designated wilderness, many reasons are derived from “the authority of the resource.”
What is the authority of the resource? Flora and fauna have a difficult time speaking up for themselves. A chipmunk may chastise you, but what did she say? An aspen may feel pain from a knife, but can you tell? If a bird is too scared to return to its nest, how do you know if you never saw the bird on the nest? The authority of the resource can sometimes save us from thoughtlessly interfering with nature.
So what does this have to do with camping within 100 feet of a water source? It can damage the natural resources. For one, it negatively affects wildlife. That water source may be an animal’s habitual watering spot. But your long-term presence can deter the thirsty critter from drinking. It’s like turning off the water main to your house for a couple days. Land near water also harbors dense, riparian vegetation. This vegetation provides food and shelter for animals. The vegetation also absorbs rain water and keeps that water in the ground. Riparian areas devoid of vegetation because of excessive human impact are more susceptible to erosion. The erosion can deprive the land of top soil and adds unnecessary sediment to the water, which hinders aquatic life. In essence, camping within 100 feet of a water source can really mess with nature. As I said earlier, the main point of designated wilderness is to preserve nature. It is the authority of the resource that asks you to camp away from water sources, not some bureaucratic pencil-pusher in Washington.
So the next time you camp in the Weminuche, South San Juan, Hermosa or Lizard Head wildernesses, think about the crew that monitors human impact. Also, remember why they do it. Remember that we can’t experience true wilderness if the previous camper disrespects the authority of the resource. That nest with eggs is probably not abandoned, that tree is doing fine without your initials in it and that chipmunk is mad because you are too close to its babies. Thanks for helping us preserve wild places where nature can thrive.
MK Gunn is volunteer and education specialist for the San Juan Mountains Association. To learn more, visit sjma.org or call 385-1269.