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“Managed Recreation Opportunities”: Big Brother’s Slice of the Great Outdoors

Years ago I edited a huge report that comes out once every five years for the state Parks and Recreation Department. In it, the bureaucratic authors wrote several times about “managed recreation opportunities,” a term that neatly described their attitudes about you and me and the wilderness. When you go for a hike in the Great Outdoors, you’re not alone: Big Brother is watching you.

Big Brother is installing toilets at the trailhead, pouring loose scree on the trail (erosion control, not a deliberate attempt to break your ankle), putting up signs to herd you this way and that, and roping off areas you oughtn’t to see (clearcut forests, for example). Such “improvements” to the out of doors often do little or nothing to change the reason you’re there, but are simply crowd control or worse, crowd encouragement. Fewer toilets and tourist centers would mean fewer people thumping the wilderness, for example…but without them, how could your “recreation opportunities” be properly “managed,” eh?

These “improvements,” which cost money, often entail erecting a gate across roads that access the “opportunity.” Usually the accompanying gatehouses stand empty. But in the most popular places, such as Oak Creek Canyon’s Slide Rock, recreation managers staff the gates with ticket-takers and charge people to use the parks and forests for which we’re already paying with our taxes. “No Parking” signs go up for miles along the roads leading to the parking lot, so you can’t use your public lands without paying a second tax in the form of a “parking fee.” Effectively what this does is make the site inaccessible to those who can’t or won’t pay extra to use it.

The City of Phoenix hosts a number of desert preserves, land that was donated or purchased to preserve small stretches of desert, mostly graced by low mountains, from the fierce sprawl of development. Our city parents watched what was going on with the state’s efforts to manage recreation opportunities and took the lesson.

Over the past few years they’ve quietly been installing gates across access roads to all the city’s desert parks. When I saw the one they stuck up at Piestewa Peak (formerly “Squaw Peak”; the difficult name is a politically correct bow to folks who think the Anglicized term is an insult to Indian women and an effort to honor a young Navajo woman who died in Iraq), I wondered when they were going to start charging people to use the hugely popular park.

Well, the answer is “now.”

The City recently announced it would start charging five dollars (!!!) to park your car at the mountain preserves!

Understand, large numbers of regulars use these parks every single day. I’ve mentioned my friend Garnett Beckman, who at 104 is still going strong. She was one of those regulars; at age 65, when she retired from teaching, she began climbing to the top of 1,190-foot Squaw Piestewa Peak every day. This produced an amazing effect on her health. She continued to hike there, all over the American Southwest, and all over the world…well into her 90s. When I went with her on one of her Christmas hikes to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, she was 84. So well known was she that a bench with her name on it has been installed three-quarters of the way up the mountain.

That would be one of the “improvements.” It’s gracious and lovely, as gestures go; but if you can hike 890 feet up a steep hill, you probably are tough enough to sit on a boulder or the ground to catch your breath.

Like me, Garnett was living on Social Security and not much else. There’s no way on God’s green earth that Garnett could have afforded to pay $5.00 a day for the privilege of parking her car at the base of the mountain. Neither can I.

I used to hike there or in North Mountain park several times a week myself. After I took on the 40-hour job at the Great Desert University, that went by the wayside, but one of my plans for this fall, after the weather cools and I’ll be teaching only one section at at time, was to get back into hiking.

Now that won’t be happening.

So loud was the uproar over the $5 soaking that the city backed down and said it would charge only $2 at the most popular parks, including Piestewa Peak and North Mountain. Mighty white of them.

For $50 you can get a pass to park for six months—a hundred bucks a year to use a park your tax dollars are already paying for.

These fees are supposed to pay for the “improvements” the City took upon itself to build. The gate, for example. The toilets. The running water. The tourist center.

North Mountain did not need a tourist center. While parking-lot bathrooms are nice for the kiddies, the truth is the trails are so sparsely vegetated there’s no place to hide to do your thing, and so most adults hold it until they can get back to their car and drive to to a bathroom. During the many years before some genius decided to run plumbing into the desert, the trails were never running sewers.

It is true that during the summer morons get themselves stuck up there on those hills with regularity. They don’t carry enough water (often they don’t carry any water!) or they go off the trails, and then they have to be hauled down on a litter or airlifted off the side of a mountain. But instead of gouging those of us who have better sense, why not charge the chuckleheaded and the feckless the full cost of sending a rescue team after them?

And it is true that the homeless mentally ill sometimes set up semipermanent camps in the desert parks, and so the city has to hire park rangers to chase them off. That problem could be resolved by providing decent mental health care services for everyone. Oh sorry, I know: s-o-o-o-cialism!

And it is true, I will not deny it, that a couple of times I’ve run into some scary dudes out there, including a man who chased me up a trail behind SqPiestewa Peak. None of the hired park rangers, however, were anywhere to be seen. I eluded him by hiding in a draw, pushing my bright blue day pack beneath me so my dun-colored clothes would blend in with the brush. Unless the city can put a cop at every bend in the trail, rather little can be done to stop that kind of thing. The laws have been changed so that women can carry concealed weapons into those parks, likely to be more effective protection than absent park rangers.

So what’s happening here is the City is using its “improvements,” most of them utterly unnecessary, as an excuse to start milking the cash cow that’s been standing there staring the city parents in the face all these years.

It’s amazing they haven’t gotten around to it before this. Piestewa Peak is so popular you can’t find a place to park at all when the weather is nice. Regulars who are acclimated to heat either go up there around five in the morning or wait until mid-day, when it’s too hot for most casual exercise walkers and families with young kids. Same is true on the north side of North Mountain, where you can access a milder trail than the one on the south side. The parks have been money waiting to happen for years. I guess, though, that the city council members figured they’d better wait for a really serious recession to pull this stunt; if they’d tried it with no obvious excuse, they’d have all been voted out of office forthwith.

So there you go. Another cut in our fair city’s quality of living.

3 thoughts on ““Managed Recreation Opportunities”: Big Brother’s Slice of the Great Outdoors”

  1. We in the Northwest are prone to calling this type of stuff IBU (improved beyond use). Often we can park a bit before the fee site and walk in. I’m not sure how that would work in a city, though.

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