Let’s blow the whistle on public-land abusers

By Rob Pudim

Dozens of TVs, refrigerators, stoves, washers, dryers and abandoned cars had either been gunshot, torched or both.

This place of destruction was what some locals called “Carnage Canyon,” roughly 30 acres off Lefthand Canyon in Boulder County, Colorado.

It was a shocking sight, but was it unique? Think about your own nearby public lands.

This canyon’s history began with mountain biking. Sometime in early 2000, a mountain biker discovered the canyon and developed a trail through it. Then, more bikers came in droves and “motocrossers” also loved it, particularly because nobody was around making rules or telling them what to do.

Nobody complained to the Forest Service, the managing federal agency.

After them came people in Jeeps who liked to plow through mud, crawl over big rocks and climb up the sides of the canyon.  They also widened the trail into a one-lane, eroded dirt road.

Still other folks figured the canyon was a great place to dispose of junk cars and appliances until the place began to resemble an open landfill. Target practice came next. Still, no one complained.

What else happened to this much-abused canyon? A murder and manhunt followed by a homeless people whose encampments were not healthy for what was left of the woods. Yet none of this was the cause for restoring the canyon to its original state.

Hey, there were no complaints! 

But here’s how erosion changed things. It brought water carrying large amounts of silt down past the canyon’s mouth and into Lefthand Creek. After the silt killed all the aquatic insects, the trout left. It was people who liked fishing for trout who demanded that the steam be fixed, and that meant the canyon had to be restored.

The Forest Service invited two nonprofit groups — Wild Lands Restoration Volunteers and Trail Ridge Road Runners — and Walsh Environmental Services to restore the canyon.

Over seven years, bullet-ridden debris was hauled away and the squatters discouraged. But it took hundreds of volunteers to dam the erosion channels — one 20 feet deep — and replant grass, shrubs and trees in the trashed roads and open areas. 

Some areas had eroded so steeply that a person could stand upright, reach out and touch the ground. Hay bales used to mulch grass seeds would tumble down the slope like bison stampeding over a cliff. 

But one problem remained and it was a big one: target shooting. A number of “near misses” made many shooters uneasy. There were also five documented shootings involving Forest Service employees and 10 complaints from area residents about flying bullets too close for comfort.

When the Forest Service erected signs closing the area to recreational shooting, their signs became targets riddled with bullet holes. But after the canyon was damaged by flooding in 2013, motorized access became blocked and target shooting was phased out.

These days, the canyon no longer looks lunar, fish are finally back and silt traps at the bottom of the canyon are almost empty. Mountain bikers are welcome on designated trails.

Locals liked to blame tourists, newcomers and outsiders for the illegal dumping, vandalism and unregulated shooting in the mountains. But Carnage Canyon’s problem areas were not tourist destinations, and most of the broken appliances and shot-out signs were problems well before the surge of newcomers.  

The truth is that when damage occurs over the decades, it is usually done by people who live in the area. We have to put the blame where it belongs, and that’s on us. We are the yahoos who do this, not Californians or Texans.

It’s also true that no government agency will act unless we complain. So when there’s an opportunity to participate in planning for what the agency calls “travel management,” we need to get involved.

I was one of the volunteers who worked several summers to help restore the battered landscape once called Carnage Canyon. The work was rewarding, as all improvements were better than what was there, but volunteers shouldn’t have to be called in to clean everything up.

Federal agencies need to be better protectors of the public lands they manage for us. And when we see rampant abuse, we need to blow the whistle to protect the lands we all own.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a cartoonist and public-land advocate in the Denver area.

Erosion Gulch, image credit Rob Pudim

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/26/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
09/26/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
09/25/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
09/27/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
09/27/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
09/27/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
09/26/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
09/27/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
09/27/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
09/27/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
09/28/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
09/28/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
09/27/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/28/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
09/28/2023 Port Townsend Leader Port Townsend WA
09/28/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
09/29/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
09/29/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
09/28/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
09/28/2023 Taos News Taos NM
10/01/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
10/01/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
10/01/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
09/26/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
10/01/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
10/01/2023 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
09/29/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
10/01/2023 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
09/30/2023 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
09/30/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
09/30/2023 Las Cruces Bulletin Las cruces NM
09/30/2023 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
09/30/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
10/06/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
10/10/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
10/13/2023 Arizona Silver Belt Globe AZ
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I Have Pretty Strong Feelings about This… – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
9 months ago

[…] Let’s blow the whistle on public-land abusers […]

Martha Kennedy
9 months ago

People are selfish and oblivious. Many see nature as a commodity. I see this during the season when the cranes are here. Just to get a photo of a crane people will do all kinds of thoughtless irresponsible things. Life was very different for me and the cranes in 2021 when the hordes did not come. MOST people are responsible, but those who are not have a greater effect on wildlife and nature than they know.

Christine Mallaband-Brown
9 months ago

Very interesting article. We are suffering in the UK with raw sewerage getting into rivers and the sea. Humans need to learn land management. So sad.

Rosemary Lucero
9 months ago

A big problem. I believe the earth needs a good lawyer which is the motto of Earth Justice.

Not just sad, but also disgusting and enraging that this sort of thing happens continuously.

9 months ago

We have to be actively involved in caring for our public lands. If you don’t document the problem and let the Federal Agencies know, it will only get worse. Unfortunately, even with the documentation, there are shortages in federal employees in the forest service and Park Service. So, maybe in addition to documenting and complaining about the abuse , we need to make sure federal programs are funded to employ workers to do the work!!!

Ben Perry
9 months ago

The “no one complained” framing of this article is a wonderful rhetorical device that really brings home the author’s call for citizen action at the end. There’s only one problem: it’s 100% false. Local residents complained to the Forest Service for YEARS about Carnage Canyon and what was happening there. Traffic, noise, trash, random gunfire, and more than two dozen calls to the local fire department for out of control campfires did not somehow go unnoticed by neighbors. The Forest Service responded that motorized vehicle and firearm usage was consistent with their land use policies for the area. Had the flood not permanently altered the landscape, I’m sure that’s the reality we’d still be dealing with today DESPITE public opposition. So while I applaud the author for encouraging citizen action in support of our public lands, I would urge him to get his facts straight and avoid unfairly demonizing anyone in that effort.

Brandon Sigfried
5 months ago
Reply to  Ben Perry

This is not surprising. There is often an agenda over the truth with some authors. It’s easy to bash motorized users but I have seen little evidence of illegal motorized trails on federal lands over the past 25 years. I have seen more evidence of mountain bikers breaking the rules than any other user group.

Earl Noe
9 months ago

It was great to see the name Rob Pudim in today’s Camera Obscura, with a link to this site. He was one of the mainstays of the Colorado Daily in ancient times when I wrote a column there. Carry on, Rob.

9 months ago

The Left Hand Canyon story had bits and pieces of truth.

Brandon Sigfried
5 months ago

If you did not submit a FOIA you don’t know if any complaints were filed. I have filed complaints for 3 years in a row regarding an illegal ATV trail system near Grand Junction, CO. The BLM ignores my complaints year after year.

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