MOAB — About 40 miles north from the tourist hordes in town and set against a backdrop of tan clay and red mesas, the vista looked primed for a nature magazine cover shoot: early afternoon, the desert bloom in full force, awash with purple and yellow flowers. Quiet.
But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. As the day wore on, the empty desert area known as Klondike Bluffs became crowded with retrofitted vans and mountain bike-toting Subarus, all hunting for the picture-perfect place to camp — for free — for the weekend.
James Gustine and his wife, Jamie, were relaxing in a pair of folding chairs as their children played atop a nearby mesa. They counted themselves lucky because they snagged a spot that morning before the crowds arrived.
“Camping in Moab is just brutal,” Gustine, of Durango, Colo., said. “Just getting a spot can be full-on competition. It didn’t used to be this way.”
A decade ago, the public lands surrounding the town of Moab were known as a quiet spring break destination for mountain bikers and climbers in the region — the kind of place where a visitor could roll in on a Saturday and not see many people.
But last year, more than 2.9 million people visited the public lands stretching from Moab to Bears Ears National Monument south of here. Across the region, low gas prices, a population rise in the West and a strong U.S. economy appear to be driving more people to visit outdoor meccas like Moab, Jackson Hole, and Fruita, Colo. This is causing problems for the federal government because many of those visitors practice dispersed camping.
Dispersed camping is a long-held tradition of the American West — going out to remote places and putting down stakes. No toilets, no electrical hook-ups, and no running water. Gustine and his family love it.
“It’s free. We get away from the crowds. The dog can run around,” he said. “Just a little more space really.”
According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 90% of the Moab field district is open to dispersed camping. But many of those spaces are in more remote, off-road locales where the terrain demands a good pair of hiking boots to arrive at a camping destination. That means the less remote areas — closer to popular hiking and biking trails — are becoming crowded. On the weekend the Gustines were camping, they were surrounded by black, live-in vans and trailer campers.
“It takes away from the experience,” Gustine said. “I don’t come out here to be around huge crowds. That’s not the reason I’m out here.”
Growing crowds aren’t the only issue causing headaches, though.
About a half-mile away from where the Gustines are camping, Lisa Bryant, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, was stooped over some dirty paper towels half-buried in the sand. She hoped they had simply escaped from someone’s picnic.
“But the way they are wadded up and stuffed into the dirt, I’m not going to pick it up,” she said.
Bryant believed those paper towels were used as toilet paper. Improperly buried waste has become a big problem as more dispersed campers come to public lands, especially in the desert.
Human feces doesn’t decompose as quickly in arid country as it does in wetter environments, such as forests. If cat holes are too shallow or a dispersed camper doesn’t carry their waste out, it can contaminate nearby water supplies and lead to unsanitary conditions. Plus, it’s gross.
“You don’t want to be camping near this,” Bryant said. “You don’t want to be experiencing this as part of your public lands, right? That’s not cool.”
People are doing other ignorant things, such as illegally driving off the road to find quiet spots to camp. Bryant pointed at a tire rut that had crushed some plants.
“This is just resource damage,” she said. “The soils are compacted now. It’s harder for the plants to get in and grow.”
From Free To Fee — Impending Restrictions On Dispersed Camping
Trampled vegetation, improperly buried human waste and growing crowds have all spurred the Bureau of Land Management to propose restricting some dispersed camping areas near popular trails in the region and introduce managed camping sites instead.
In Moab, for example, the agency has long-range plans to build five new, $20 per-night campgrounds complete with fire rings and pit toilets. Proper campgrounds have helped confine crowds in national parks and other recreation areas, and the money generated from fees is often used for campground maintenance and bathroom cleaning.
But Mike Souza, a retired plumber from California who has vacationed in Moab for 30 years, wasn’t a fan of the idea. He and his two old, red cattle dogs were relaxing in the shade of his camper trailer. The desert is becoming more crowded, he acknowledged, but he believed that clamping down on dispersed camping wasn’t the answer.
“I feel like when they close something down I say, ‘Well, why?’ I pay taxes to be able to use this,” he said.
Creating designated campsites and fee campgrounds will just drive more people to other dispersed camping areas, Souza believes, leading to the same problems there. Instead, people need to learn better camping etiquette.
“They’re not being educated in this way,” he said. “They don’t realize that this could be taken away. They think it’s theirs. They don’t know it’s a privilege. And that’s the problem."
Correction 10:53 a.m. 6/3/19: A previous version of this story misstated Jamie Gustine's name.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.