Americans looking for a pristine wilderness experience on remote U.S. Forest Service lands increasingly are finding trashy campsites, unsafe trails, unhealthy water and pollution.
And Forest Service officials recounting these problems also are warning that because of tight money and growing land use, conditions are likely to worsen among the 32 million acres of official wilderness under their control."We're falling behind," George Leonard, associate USFS chief, told the House Interior public lands subcommittee on Tuesday in what chairman Bruce Vento, D-Minn., said was the first-ever congressional review of the condition of wilderness areas protected from development under a landmark 1964 law.
"Wilderness areas are now literally being loved to death" by burgeoning numbers of backpackers, some of them ignorant of backcountry etiquette and hygiene, said Greg Hansen, a ranger from the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona's Tonto National Forest.
Richard LaBorde, supervisor for two areas in California's Inyo National Forest, said that overuse there has been countered by setting trailhead quotas and requiring campers to obtain permits.
But he said the areas' two rangers are able to contact only 7 percent of the visitors to brief them on backcountry manners and that trail reconstruction is eight years behind schedule, causing safety and erosion problems.
LaBorde said all visitors are told to purify water before drinking it. And to combat improper sanitation practices by campers, there are now two solar toilets on the popular Mt. Whitney trail, he said.
Anne Fege of the Forest Service explains that such toilets are portable enclosures that have solar collectors to generate heat to dry out and compost human waste.
LaBorde said grazing by pack animals owned by commercial outfitters is nearing the land's grazing capacity and that concentrated use of some campsites "has left many barren scars on the landscape."
"Our efforts to regain some sort of natural condition to these areas have been weak," testified LaBorde, adding that he's "had very little success" in getting Forest Service support for revegetation efforts.
Leonard and the six rangers at the hearing said more money is needed to manage the wilderness areas. Vento agreed, saying that only 32 cents a year is being spent on each wilderness acre, compared to $6.39 per acre for general Forest Service lands.
Since 1984, Congress has doubled the number of wilderness areas to 352.