Outdoor recreationists: Respect private and public land, or risk losing access

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December 15th, 2008

Recent incidents involving thoughtless and even destructive acts by some outdoor recreationists have Arizona Game and Fish Department officials and responsible outdoor users concerned about retaining continued public access to vast tracts of public and private land.

“We work cooperatively with landowners, especially ranchers, to keep access for recreation open,” said Sal Palazzolo, the Game and Fish Department’s Landowner Relations Program manager, “but it is a daunting task because senseless acts by a few thoughtless outdoor recreationists can jeopardize relations and result in large tracts of land being closed to us all.”

Palazzolo said some of the lands in question happen to be premier hunting areas where outfitters are sometimes willing to pay landowners thousands of dollars for exclusive access.

“We can’t do it all ourselves. We need the assistance of sportsmen and other conscientious recreationists to help curb these senseless acts,” Palazzolo said.

Here are some examples of what is happening.

Recently, a rancher in northern Arizona had closed a section of road across a stream because the road crossing had become washed out.

“One one day this autumn, an elk hunter ignored the closure sign and promptly got his truck stuck in the creek,” Palazzolo said, “The rancher took it in stride and helped the individual contact a tow truck to haul the vehicle out.”

The following day, another person also ignored the closure sign and got stuck in the creek, but nobody was home at the remote ranch house. There was a bulldozer parked near the private residence that a contractor was going to use to repair the road crossing.

“Without any permission, the person who had gotten his vehicle stuck got into the bulldozer, fired it up, and pulled his truck out of the creek, causing damage to the fragile riparian area,” Palazzolo said. “We are still waiting to hear if the bulldozer was damaged in any way.”

That isn’t all.

On another ranch, a ranch hand had collected and displayed lots of deer and elk antlers over the years, and had actually made a fence of the antlers around his ranch house. While the cowboy was out working the range, someone stole all the prized antlers.

On yet another ranch, three men wearing camouflage clothing and riding all-terrain vehicles were seen shooting at a herd of grazing horses. Fortunately, these illegal road hunters didn’t hit anything.

Fences have been cut, windmills shot up and signs shot to doll rags. Trash and litter have been left to despoil the land. Vehicles have torn up cattle tanks and earthen dams.

These senseless acts and others are putting continued access for hunters, off-roaders, campers and other recreationists in danger – for many reasons.

For instance, one rancher in the area said it costs him about $5,000 annually to repair damage or address other issues associated with recreationists.

“Fortunately, this conscientious rancher still keeps working with us despite the fact he has been offered thousands of dollars by outfitters for exclusive hunting rights to his property,” Palazzolo said.

Incidents such as these concern the responsible majority of outdoor recreationists.

“I spend a lot of time working with ranchers and land managers on projects, and it’s appalling to see some of the damage,” says longtime sportsman John Koleszar. “Some people do it willfully, but others just don’t know any better and need to be educated on outdoor ethics. Remember, ethics is what you do when no one is watching.”

Koleszar has seen a great deal of good behavior by outdoor users, but some bad behavior as well.  Good behavior, he says, is respecting other people and the land, helping others out, asking permission to use private property. Bad behavior is ignoring posted signs, causing damage to habitat and property, cutting fences, among others.

These recent incidents also highlight a much broader issue facing outdoor recreationists.

Palazzolo pointed out that Arizona consists of about 72.6 million acres, of which 18 percent is privately owned. These lands represent important recreational opportunities as well as access corridors into other publicly owned lands.

Public access restrictions in Arizona have increased substantially over the last decade as more landowners exercise their right to deny access to or through their private lands. In many cases, access is prevented to State Trust and public lands as a result of these closures.

The seven most common reasons for landowners denying access are:

  • Vandalism
  • Trespassing
  • Littering
  • Off-road activities
  • Disruption of landowner operations
  • Liability Issues
  • Undocumented Immigrants and drug trafficking (Southern Arizona)

“We can’t be everywhere. Recreationists, especially hunters, need to be our eyes and ears out there, and also be ambassadors for conscientious recreational ethics on the land,” Palazzolo said.

If you see someone doing one of these senseless acts, contact local law enforcement or call our Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700.

“The thing that worries me is that some people seem unaware of the potential consequences of their bad behavior,” says Koleszar. “If you don’t exercise good outdoor ethics and educate others to do the same, land management agencies and private property owners could close off access. It’s in the hands of the users to demonstrate they’re responsible—or they could lose it forever.”

Palazzolo adds, “The tract of public land you help keep open might just be your favorite hunting ground or maybe one of your favorite places to ride your quad. These lands belong to all of us, so help us help others to treat them that way.”

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