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Trash talk: New Mexico outdoor spaces are being inundated with visitors and the refuse being left behind

Unsightly garbage left behind on the Caja del Rio on Bureau of Land Management land. (Courtesy of Garrett VeneKlasen)

The months of isolation, binge watching and home-schooling have created a yearning for New Mexico’s wild – or even semi-wild – places like never before.

And it has almost gotten to be too much as nature is reeling from the onslaught of visitors.

“Right now, we’re seeing the importance of being outdoors more than ever,” Axie Navas, director of the New Mexico Economic Development Department’s Outdoor Recreation Division. “People are looking to the outdoors for solace and to get through the stir craziness that they are going through.”

In particular, the Pecos and Jemez areas have been inundated as people burst from their quarantines to escape to somewhere – anywhere – else.

“It’s a difficult time, and I think we’re lucky that New Mexico’s public places can provide an outlet,” Navas said. “We’re seeing more than ever the importance of New Mexico’s outdoors.”

However, not all the visitors are properly schooled in the ethos of taking care of the land, particularly since federal and state manpower shortages caused by the coronavirus have left significant gaps in crews that would patrol, educate and clean up.

Even in developed fire rings, the extremely dry conditions have caused officials to ban open campfires throughout the state. (Courtesy of Garrett VeneKlasen)

“We’re seeing some distressing things,” she said. “People are leaving trash and starting illegal camp fires. In order to be able to recreate, you have to be able to avoid these situations.”

Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for New Mexico Wild, said it is going to take a broad-based education effort to help curb the issue.

“I think it’s going to require collaboration among the state agencies, federal agencies, non-profits like ours to get the word out,” he said. “It’s going to take a really concerted, collaborative effort to educate the public. When other public venues close, they’re (public lands) the best things out there.”

And as the best things out there, it is incumbent upon every visitor to do their part to keep the land as pristine as possible, VeneKlasen said.

Vandalism at the La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs site near Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Garrett VeneKlasen)

“We all need to have a sense of pride,” he said. “It’s such a privilege to have all of these remarkable public lands to use. If you have pride, then you respect it not just for yourself but everyone that uses it and for future generations that are to follow behind us.”

That’s particularly important as the lands swell with visitors in historic numbers.

“I’ve never seen this many people in the woods,” VeneKlasen said. “I’ve never seen so much trash and feces and really bad off-road misuse, driving in riparian areas, destroying wetlands. A whole list of bad behaviors.”

Sometimes it is a matter of not knowing any better and sometimes it is a matter of not caring, he said.

“I think some of these people know better but because of the lack of enforcement of public lands, not everyone, but the bad actors, have a sort of catch-me-if-you-can attitude. Which is unfortunate because those lands belong to them, it’s their backyard, too.”

It is particularly important to plan ahead and be prepared, Navas said.

“A lot of campsites remain closed,” she said. “You should not anticipate having a place to park. It’s important for people to check out resources before planning a trip. Plan for places to be busy. Then have a back up. Maybe go to a trailhead, and if you see that it’s really crowded, maybe turn around and go to another trail that might not be as crowded.”

And anticipate garbage collection areas to be overflowing.

“Be prepared to pack out all your trash,” Navas said. “Bring a garbage bag. And if you see other trash, pack it out, too. The guidelines are to leave places maybe better than we found it.”

The crush on outdoors is likely to continue for some time, Navas added, as New Mexico and other states slowly creep back to some sense of normalcy.

“I don’t find it surprising,” she said. “In part, we’re seeing this across the country. One-third of the nation is in depression so access to outdoors is critical.

“In New Mexico, we have access to incredible, vast, public lands so we can avoid crowds, ideally, and social distance. We’ve seen how at this time outdoors helps with improved mental health outcomes. Exercise from being outside with access to natures reduces depression and anxiety levels.”