Visitors packing Southwest's national forests pose problems

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The Memorial Day weekend saw crowds heading into the woods of northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. But that was also typical of other May weekends this year, as were the trash and dozens of abandoned campfires that visitors left behind creating health and safety hazards.

And the same was true in northern New Mexico where volunteers cleaning up one picnic area found paper plates, dirty diapers and even buckets of human waste.

“We are seeing lots of people weary of quarantine and looking to get out of the house,” said Santa Fe National Forest spokeswoman Julie Ann Overton, referring to coronavirus lockdown orders.

The shores of Lake Mary south of Flagstaff were particularly crowded last weekend while over 500 cars came and went in a 24-hour period at Knoll Lake further south in the Coconino National Forest, the Arizona Daily Sun reported. Meanwhile cars were illegally parked on the sidewalk at a popular trailhead where the parking lot just outside Flagstaff was full.

“We’ve been experiencing that level of visitation for well over a month. It’s not just been this Memorial Day weekend like it always is,” said Andrew Hostad, assistant fire prevention officer.

Over 30 illegal campfires were reported on the Coconino over the Memorial Day weekend, with at least 20 such reports on previous May weekends, officials said..

“It’s been consistent, which is abnormal,” said Lindsay McElfresh, assistant fire management officer.

The potential for human-caused wildfires is particularly worrisome when so many people are in the forest, said Hostad.

If one of the illegal fires becomes a wildfire, “there’s that many more people that we potentially have to get out from in front of this,” Hostad said. “It’s just a huge public safety situation.”

Officials also say some forest users practice social distancing as a health and safety precaution during the pandemic while other's don't.

The Lava River Caves in the Flagstaff Ranger District has been closed but that doesn't stop people from showing up, District Ranger Matt McGrath said.

“Every time our folks drive by, there’s 50 to 70 cars, and that site is closed,” McGrath said. “It’s a cave. And it’s an example where people can’t be socially distant in a cave.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

In New Mexico, officials had reports of large crowds, trash dumping, and dozens of illegal and abandoned campfires at sites across the Santa Fe National Forest, Overton told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Crews had to respond to some to prevent wildfires, Overton said.

A cleanup crew working Wednesday in the Spanish Queen Picnic Site in the Jemez Mountains found trash strewn all over the place and empty liquor and beer bottles on the riverbank.

“This is my ancestral homeland,” volunteer Candice Sando, a Jemez Pueblo member, said as she bagged garbage. “They’re showing disregard for our history, humanity and culture.”

Overton said rangers spoke with many people who were first-time forest visitors.

“Perhaps no one taught them that if you bring it in, bring it back with you,” Jemez District Ranger Brian Riley said. “We’re finding a lot of use — and abuse as well. Somehow, some way, we have to find a better way to educate the public.”