Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Wide Open Spaces - Public Lands Access

While not specifically a destination, you can't talk about Northern Arizona (or virtually anywhere else in the western U.S. for that matter) without mentioning the incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation. I am referring to the millions and millions of acres that make up the public lands system - National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Forests.
I've lived out west all my life, and the few trips I've taken to the eastern part of the country leads me to wonder how folks recreate where public land is limited in size and access. I know we adapt to what is considered normal in our lives, but there is no way I could thrive in a place where getting "out there" means driving for days to reach a destination, or camping in a crowded semi-urban environment where solitude is hard to find. Fortunately I don't have to, because the nearest National Forest is 200 yards from my doorstep.

When I was a tour guide several years ago, I would take guests into the backcountry through the National Forest. Along the way, I would explain how the land around them was public, held in trust for all citizens. I'd tell them to pick a tree, and we'd put their name on it - corny tour guide humor, but in reality not so far fetched. Most folks had no idea that these places existed, or that they were entitled to use it for many different types of recreation. If you live in the west, chances are you already know about the tremendous freedom that comes from having so much space available. If you are a visitor to the area, I strongly recommend that you take the time to explore and utilize what belongs to everybody.

The National Forests

From Wikipedia:
"In the USA there are 155 national forests containing almost 190,000,000 acres (297,000 mi² - 769 000 km²) of land. These lands comprise 8.5 percent of the total land area of the United States, an area about the size of Texas. Only 13 percent of National Forest land lies east of the Mississippi River. Alaska alone accounts for 12 percent of all National Forest land."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service. Their mandate is to manage 190 million acres of forest and grassland for the benefit of the nation, and for years the agency's approach has focused on the multiple use strategy. Historically these uses have been livestock grazing, logging, and mineral extraction. While these primary uses still occur today, the increased demand for quality outdoor activities has shifted the balance in favor of recreation and conservation.

The National Forests in northern Arizona are: Coconino NF and Kaibab NF

Bureau Of Land Management

Unlike the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management is under the auspices of the Department of the Interior, the same agency as the Park Service. They currently manage over 264 million acres of public land, primarily in the Western U.S. They are similar to the Forest Service in that their mission is conservation and utilization of these resources. The key difference is that in the past the BLM placed more emphasis on resource extraction and commercial use, earning them the nickname "Bureau of Livestock and Mining", although they are also shifting to providing more recreational opportunities. In the last 15 years they have also been assigned stewardship of several National Monuments.

BLM lands in northern Arizona include: The Strip District, Hassayampa District, and the Safford District. The BLM also manages the Vermilion Cliffs NM, and in conjunction with the National Park Service administers the Grand Canyon - Parashant NM.

National Park Service

Contained in the 400 National Parks and Monuments managed by the Park Service are unique cultural, historic, and geographic treasures held in trust for future generations. Unlike the Forest Service and BLM, the Park Service emphasizes preservation and intrepretation of these resources, and most access is strictly managed. Nearly all require entrance or user fees and have developed facilities for the visitor, and the majority of Parks limit backcountry use under some type of permit system.

Northern Arizona National Parks, Monuments and National Recreation Areas: Grand Canyon NP, Petrified Forest NP, Canyon De Chelly NM, Walnut Canyon NM, Sunset Crater NM, Wupatki NM, Montezuma Castle NM, Tuzigoot NM, Navajo NM, Tonto NM, Hubbell Trading Post NHS, Rainbow Bridge NM, Pipe Spring NM. There are two National Recreation Areas administered by the NPS: Glen Canyon NRA and Lake Mead NRA. Additionally the NPS jointly manages the Grand Canyon - Parashant NM with the BLM.

Campgrounds Vs. Dispersed Camping

Most National Forests and BLM lands offer developed campgrounds throughout their domains, usually in proximity to lakes or other features where recreational use is high. Campgrounds work well for those who don't mind occasional noise or disruption from neighbors, and for first time campers or those who need the reassurance of nearby human company. There are usually fees involved depending on the level of services provided, and popular spots can be hard to come by during holidays and peak seasons. In more developed sites, water, restrooms, showers, and interpretive programs are available, while some "developed" campgrounds may provide a table and fire ring at most.

The other option for those seeking solitude is dispersed camping, often referred to by the RV community as boondocking or dry camping. If you don't mind having no services and are prepared to go it alone, adventurous campers should consider the at large camping option. Most Forest Service and BLM lands allow campers to select campsites within their districts - but be aware there are basic rules to follow, which vary according to local management practices. In general, most dispersed camping requires that you are at least 1/4 mile from any paved road or developed site, and that campers utilize low impact techniques in choosing and occupying a spot. If you're not sure about whether dispersed camping is allowed in the area you are visiting, check with the local district ranger beforehand.

  • Pick a location that has been used previously
  • Camp on bare soil or rock to minimize damage to vegetation

  • Don't camp within 100 feet of a water source - wildlife needing to drink will go without rather than approaching your camp

  • Don't "engineer" your campsite by digging trenches or building any kind of structures.

  • ALWAYS pack out your trash! There is no garbage service on public land, and this is the number one reason restrictions are placed on where people can camp.

  • Be aware of fire restrictions and regulations concerning the gathering and transport of fuel wood.

  • If you have a campfire, always make sure your fire is completely out before you leave. Use water and soil to extinguish the flames, then check with your hands - ashes should be cool to the touch.

  • Most National Forests enforce a 14 day camping limit.

  • Not everyone is a responsible camper, but you can be. Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it.

The Call of The Wild

For those unfamiliar with boondocking not having other people near by can be intimidating at first. Fear of the unknown is the biggest factor, and after dark every sound in the brush is a potential predator looking to feast on the solitary camper. While there are many creatures that inhabit the wilds, in nearly all cases they are more than happy to give your campsite a wide berth.

Here in Arizona wild game consists of larger animals like Rocky Mountain Elk, Mule Deer, Pronghorn (sometimes called antelope), and predators such as Mountain Lion and Black Bear. Smaller fauna are Coyotes and Bobcats, Fox, Raccoon, Skunk, and a wide variety of smaller mammals. None of these creatures should be a real cause for concern to the camper, as long you enjoy them from a distance. Never approach or attempt to handle a wild animal - they can be unpredictable and in some cases may harbor diseases like Rabies, Lyme Disease, or Bubonic plague.


Mountain lions are territorial animals and lead solitary lives, and it is rare to have an encounter with one. Even so, people with small children or pets need to take appropriate precautions when camping in known lion habitat.

Likewise, black bears are generally more afraid of people than we are of them, and you should count yourself lucky if you get the chance to see one in the wild. To minimize the possibility of encountering an aggressive bear, avoid females with young or areas near a fresh kill site. When hiking in dense brush or places with limited visual range, it's not a bad idea to make some noise to alert an animal to your presence.

Cattle and Public Lands

While my opinion on the subject of livestock grazing on public land tends to the "I'd rather not see it" side, that's not the point of providing this information. I would simply like to point out a couple of things for the novice boondocker about the subject. First of all, much of the National Forest and BLM is leased to ranchers for seasonal grazing, and you can expect to encounter cattle or sheep across much of the western landscape in summer. Second, in many locations "cattle guards" are in use across roads instead of gates, which is convenient since no one has to get out to open and close a gate. But, wherever you do find a gate on a public road, always leave it as you found it - the rancher will appreciate it.

A family was traveling on their first western vacation. Along the road the children saw a sign that read "Cattle Guard Ahead". The car drove on for several miles without anything unusual being spotted, and eventually the youngest child couldn't stand it any longer. He asked his parents: "Where was he?" Mom and Dad looked at each other with perplexed expressions. "What on earth are you referring to?" asked his mother. The little boy gave his parents the exasperated look children reserve for really dumb adults. He said, "The cattle guard - where was he?"

In my opinion, the biggest concern for people choosing to camp away from the crowd is preparedness – plenty of water, food, shelter, making sure your vehicle is good working order, and above all letting others know where you'll be going in the event of an emergency. With all that and a willingness to leave the noise and crowds behind the rewards are many and the risks few.





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