Devastating fires across much of the nation has brought the power of public lands managers into question for serious sportsmen.
There are 154 National Forests in the US, each containing several districts, and each of these has it’s own District Ranger. Does the district ranger of the area deserve the right to shut down public lands? Obviously, there are some cases where they need to for safety. Such as an active fire. But shutting the lands down for years after a fire, even in the winter? This is the case in much of Colorado right now after the record-breaking fire year of 2020.
It gets even more controversial when you realize that these shut down practices are not instituted at a federal level across the board, but instead up to the individual district manager of an area. For instance, in 2020 both Wyoming and Colorado suffered fires burning similar acreage of around 200,000 acres. In Wyoming, the burn area was opened back up to the public in November of 2020 with exception of a few trail systems. The district manager, Frank Romero, quoting “The benefit of public access to the Mullen Fire burn area now outweighs the risks that exist”. In Colorado, a portion of the burn scar of the Cameron Peak fire is “closed to all users”. Most of the scar was closed till September of 2021, a full year after the fire ended, even then only opening to foot traffic and not allowing motor vehicles on roads that were open prior to the fire. This is a drastic difference in how lands are managed – one putting faith in the public, one abusing their power.
Of course, there are dangers in a burn scar the years following a devastating fire. However, it is not the job of the District Ranger to protect people from all danger in the wilderness. Especially when they go overboard, shutting down mass areas of land even to fishing and winter activities. Perhaps I would be more understanding as a sportsman if the closures were more specific to areas and times of year that pose a high safety risk as opposed to a year-round blanket closure.
Not all public land is managed or enforced by the Forrest Service. Some belongs to the State, Bureau of Land Management, or other agencies. Making Colorado an example yet again, the state land in the Cameron Peak fire scar I mentioned above was only closed to the public when under a mandatory evacuation order – only the federally managed land stayed closed. The state land is now open to the public as normal – no closure even to areas severely impacted by the burn. The wildlife in the area is also managed by state agencies. They know how herds are affected and if hunting license numbers need to be adjusted.
Wildfires are going to continue to happen nationwide. As an avid sportsman I would hate to see public land and opportunity go down because individual district managers are abusing their power. So, what can we do about it? Why is it really that important? Managers of our public land should be managing for the public, not trying their best to keep us out. Just like it is important for us to keep up on our political duties at the ballot box, we need to step up when we see overreach happening. Specific ways include learning your district managers name, email, and office – then writing, calling, and emailing when you have a concern. I have written letters expressing my concern, and I believe others should as well! Just like writing your congressmen about what is happening in your area, writing to, or calling, your district manager can bring about real policy changes. Being active and talking to the natural resources personnel in your area when you see them in the field is important also. When we, as sportsmen, have personal relationships with land managers, they re more likely to respect our opinions and truly hear what we are saying. Ask questions, be respectful, and learn their jobs and the impact it can have on us as public land users. Remember, they work for us! Not the other way around.