The Pack Creek fire — caused by an unattended campfire lit on a red-flag day — has already cost more than $4.5 million in firefighting costs, burned more than 8,000 acres and destroyed four homes. While I am angry about the stupidity of the folks who started the fire, these events are inevitable when thousands of people flock to the backroads of the La Sal Mountains for “free”, dispersed camping. Free, dispersed camping made sense 20 years ago, when camping was indeed widely dispersed. This is no longer true.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, nearly every wide spot on La Sal loop road had a vehicle and a camp set up, as did any flat spot off of Geyser Pass road. Many of these sites were in “no camping” zones. This level of camping is not dispersed, and it is not sustainable. As we just learned, it only takes one irresponsible person to set our mountains ablaze. Many of our visitors come from less-flammable parts of the world and do not fully grasp the risk of fires. Some just do not care.
We need better camping infrastructure and a plan to address affordable housing here.
Most campgrounds in the Moab area are full on any given weekend, which drives people to look for camping in outlying areas. Some workers in the Moab area cannot afford rent and live out of their vehicles in the La Sals. Housing for low- and middle-income workers is too expensive, and these workers have few options for places to live.
Until we have better enforcement and more infrastructure, we need to stop encouraging more visitors. The state’s requirement that Grand County spends 48% of its transient room tax revenues on tourism promotion only encourages more visitors, even though there is no infrastructure to support them. Furthermore, much of the largess of the tourism tax benefits Grand County, while much of the burden of “free” dispersed camping falls onto the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and San Juan County. Bringing more tourists to the area is not the critical need. Maintaining the viability of the area is the critical need.
Because of the complex terrain and drought, the Pack Creek fire will continue to burn the La Sal Mountains, and the costs will continue to mount. My home was one of the four that were burned to the ground last week. Clearly, this type and level of camping in the La Sal Mountains is not free, but comes at a huge cost to residents, to visitors and to the land itself.