Even if those of us who seek solitude in nature are sometimes branded as elitists by the people who are determined to measure success in terms of numbers, we can hardly be criticized if we point out that along with the growing crowds in the out-of-doors has come increased crime. Crime in our cities has been publicized—and exploited as an issue by politicians—for years, but crime in the woods and deserts and along the rivers has been largely ignored.
Most obvious and common are crimes against the land itself, which would include the hundreds of tons of litter deposited yearly in campgrounds, national parks and wilderness areas; the erosion caused by four-wheel-drive vehicles and trail bikes; and the millions of dollars' worth of trees that are stolen from our forests. "Thievery has increased phenomenally in the last two years as more householders have put in wood stoves," says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank A. Wilson. Many of these thieves cut wood only for themselves, but some cut it to sell at $100 a cord or more. A thief with a trailer can cart off 20 cords at a time, and few wood thieves are ever caught—less than 1% Wilson estimates. Also, the growing of marijuana on federal land is becoming an enormous problem for the Forest Service.
As more people visit the backcountry—for legal or illegal reasons—the risk of forest fires increases. Most fires are caused by stupidity or carelessness, but hundreds of thousands of acres are burned each year by arsonists, most of whom are never apprehended.
There is nothing new about poaching, but hard economic times have caused it to increase. Fish are illegally netted and dynamited, while hundreds of thousands of deer are shot out of season each year.
In national parks, where the increase in crime has been dramatic, there are not enough rangers to deal with the situation. "It seems to come in a wave whenever the economy gets bad," says Roger Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. In that park alone, there were 220 incidents of theft from cars in 1980, as compared with 113 in 1979.
Obviously, crimes against people are more intolerable than crimes against property, and they, too, are becoming more common all the time. Women are raped on remote Hawaiian beaches, and campers and hikers are beaten and occasionally murdered.
The crime and violence in the backcountry is real, and nearly everyone I know who spends a lot of time out-of-doors has had a number of unpleasant experiences—and at least one frightening incident—in recent years.
The officials who are willing to discuss backcountry crime suggest that more law-enforcement officers and harsher punishment for violators is the answer. They often blame the "liberal Supreme Court," the same tired excuse often offered by officials explaining away their inability to control urban crime.
Honest acknowledgment of the problem must come first. Once that happens, more and stricter law enforcement might help to a degree. But I think education is the answer. Most people don't need their car or camper van, they simply have no knowledge of how to manage without such accoutrements. If they knew how to handle themselves in the outdoors, they'd be more willing to experience the wilderness in its pure form. And their enjoyment would increase, as would their appreciation. Beyond that, the advice offered by Colin Fletcher makes as much sense to me as anything. We should be making it harder, not easier, to get to most outdoor recreation areas. Those who really want to go will always find a way.
Wherever practicable—and that would be a lot of places—all vehicles except those driven by authorized personnel should be excluded. People in the woods for any illegal reason are almost certainly there in a Jeep or truck. Vehicles carry most of the people responsible for fires and can start fires themselves. But what about children and the aged and infirm? Edward Abbey addresses this question in his well-regarded book Desert Solitaire, in which he urges the banning of automobiles from national parks: "Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents' backs need only wait a few years—if they are not run over by automobiles, they will grow into a lifetime of joyous adventure.... The aged merit even less sympathy: after all, they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled. However, we'll stretch a point for those too old or sickly to mount a bicycle and let them ride the shuttle buses."