On Sunday, January 6, two western Montana skiers headed out for a tour. They drove snowmobiles to the border of a federal wilderness area, then switched to backcountry touring gear, expecting to break trail through powder. Instead they found themselves following fresh tread tracks. In the distance, two snowmobilers were high-marking a bowl that was clearly within the designated wilderness. The outlaw motorists paid no mind to the skiers, who were obeying the social contract, and eventually buzzed within 20 feet of them.
Due to the government shutdown, the skiers couldn’t report the incident to rangers, but one of them called the local sheriff with a description of the sleds as well as a truck and trailer that was parked at the trailhead. (He shared these details with me on the condition of anonymity.) The sheriff’s office, not often tasked with public-lands violations, appeared indifferent. As for the throttle-twisting malefactors, one presumes they saw the government closure as an opportunity for an illegal joyride. “They were being so blatant about it,” the skier told me. “It sure seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing—and they didn’t care.”
The violation wasn’t as egregious as the snowmobilers who buzzed Old Faithful during the three-day government shutdown last January, but such civil atrophy has become rampant in our national parks as the current crisis enters its fourth week. News stories have mostly focused on several deaths and the overflowing toilets occurring there, but what’s gone largely unreported is the fact that inconsiderate adventurers see the closure as an opportunity to fun-hog around public lands without a care for the rules that we the people have written to protect our open spaces and natural habitats. The national parks largely remain open, as do our national forests and other public lands. The laws that govern these lands are also still in effect. It’s only the diligent stewards we employ to care for those lands who are now out of work. Sadly, with little to no oversight, society devolves and people behave poorly. As George Orwell, who had a handle on dystopias, once stressed, “Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out … depends on the general temper in the country.”
Let’s characterize the current temperament as increasingly brazen with instances of outright criminality. The worst reports are just now coming out of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where marauding off-road vehicles have created tracks through the desert that will remain for decades. Crowds pitching illegal campsites are also doing lasting damage to the fragile landscape. In Northern California’s Marin County, mountain bikers have begun poaching the singletrack in Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes. On Christmas Day, I was cross-country skiing on national forestland near my home in Missoula, Montana, along a groomed track that is clearly marked as off limits to hikers and snowshoers when I encountered a teenager postholing along with a new sled from Santa, intent on ripping down a nearby avalanche path.
I admit that I empathize with the anti-authority instinct here. If, like me, your idea of adventure involves more than perusing the stuffed-bobcat displays at visitor centers and walking mile-long, paved interpretive loop trails, national parks can feel overcrowded, overmanaged, and overly restrictive. Get rid of the Winnebagos and rangers, though, and the parks look like spectacular, wide-open playgrounds. Mountain bikers in particular have long dreamed of rolling the trails in national parks and wilderness areas. The former tend to offer zero off-road access except, in rare cases, to flat “carriage roads,” while the latter ban mountain bikers (and snowmobilers) entirely. Such restrictions can be soul crushing to sports-minded visitors. “The mountain-biking access is so bad in Marin that the shutdown gives us a chance to ride trails we normally can’t get on,” says a source who didn’t want to be identified. “We’re not cutting new trails or riding steep trails that aren’t suited to bikes. We’re riding established trails that the equestrians and hikers refuse to share with us. It’s like looking at a bunch of untracked powder and not being able to ski it.”
There’s a similar appeal in camping or backpacking without complicated permitting or reservations made months in advance. Sometimes you just want to follow your wanderlust. Do that during the shutdown in a manner respectful of the ecosystem and a park’s regulations and nobody will really care. But raging around our public lands breaking all rules is not the way democratic society is supposed to work. The irresponsible dregs violating our national parks and wilderness areas right now are acting like high school kids throwing a kegger because their parents are out of town. And at this pace, they’re going to destroy the house.
Even if, like the Marin bikers, you don’t believe you’re damaging the environment, ignoring the law has consequences, whether or not the rangers are on duty. User groups spend years lobbying for reasonable access to trails. Patience—and civility—are critical to the success of these efforts. In Boulder, Colorado, bikers worked within the system over 15 years to double the mileage open to riding. Those choosing to bomb choice singletrack within unmonitored national parks right now risk setting back those kinds of legitimate campaigns.
Not to get too JFK here, but during the shutdown it’s worth asking not what we can get away with on our public lands but what we can do for them. Some upstanding citizens have been at this already. Climbers in Yosemite and Joshua Tree took it upon themselves to haul away garbage. At the National Forest Service–managed cross-country-skiing center where I live, the nordic club has helped stock the vault toilets with TP. Elsewhere, nonprofits are stepping up to take over some essential management or raise funds to keep the lights on.
Let’s take our cues from those actions and the thoughtful adventures of folks like professional climber Tommy Caldwell. Early last Saturday, with the roads in his hometown Rocky Mountain National Park closed, but the park itself open, Caldwell and some friends opted to fat-bike ten miles past the gates to a trailhead near the Dragontail Couloir. They knocked off a 1,500-foot boot-pack climb, made a 50-degree ski descent, and rolled back to Estes Park by 10:30 A.M. They didn’t burn a drop of fuel or break a single law in the process. They also didn’t need the help of any rangers, which is another lesson we can all draw from the shutdown. True, the Caldwell party’s skill level was beyond that of any search and rescue group, but as he told me, “We need to create a culture of that type of self-reliance,” adding that the park was deserted. “I don’t think the national parks can run without the government. But people shouldn’t assume they’ll be looked after all the time either.”
Self-reliance, self-governance, the temperament to abide laws even as we seek to change them through legal means—these teachings are as old as democracy. It’s upon us to act with decorum while the rangers we’ve entrusted with our safety, and a lot of our environmental protections, struggle to feed their families. America’s public lands are the envy of the world. Let’s treat them as such.