Last month, I visited Yellowstone National Park, and several of the 10,000 geothermal features — geysers, hot springs, mudpots and steam vents — for which it is world-famous.
One of them in particular, the Grand Prismatic Spring, is especially enchanting. It takes its name from the palette of vivid colors — shades of blue, green, orange and yellow — in the pool and on its periphery. The temperature of the water emerging from deep within the earth and flowing over the brim is nearly 190 degrees. I could feel its warmth from a distance while walking on a boardwalk that makes it possible for park visitors to view features like these safely.
I was never remotely tempted to violate the posted rules to remain on the boardwalk and stay off the thermal ground. Truly, it never would have occurred to me to venture out there.
Two weeks earlier, though, another Yellowstone visitor in a very similar area had a different idea. A 26-year-old woman from New Hartford, Conn., Madeline Casey, decided to go for a walk on the thermal ground at nearby Norris Geyser Basin. She was unhurt, but she did pay a price. A Wyoming judge sentenced her to seven days in jail. She also had to pay a $1,000 fine and make a $1,000 donation to a Yellowstone resource fund.
“For those who lack a natural ability to appreciate the dangerousness of crusty and unstable ground, boiling water and scalding mud, the National Park Service does a darn good job of warning them to stay on the boardwalk and trail in thermal areas,” acting U.S. Attorney Bob Murray said in a statement after the verdict. “Yet there will always be those like Ms. Casey who don’t get it. Although a criminal prosecution and jail time may seem harsh, it’s better than spending time in a hospital’s burn unit.”
That’s merely the latest example of humans behaving badly in nature, a trend that intensified during the pandemic as more Coloradans recreated on public lands. Yellowstone saw it, too. Park officials recorded 122 cases of “thermal trespass” in 2020, three times the annual average over the previous five years.
What is it with people who can’t respect their surroundings, not to mention the dangers they can present? Already, visitors to Estes Park during the elk rut are being reminded that they should keep plenty of distance between them and the animals. Yellowstone is full of signs urging visitors to stay far away from the bison because they can be dangerous. It should just be common sense.
In Colorado, we have seen vandalism and graffiti at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, another geological wonder near Colorado Springs. In the Ice Lakes area near Silverton, hikers stole wood from historic mining structures last year to build campfires on sensitive alpine tundra while also leaving human waste around the otherwise pristine lake. Other acts of reckless resource damage have been reported by national forest officials around the state.
During the annual tarantula migration in La Junta last fall, some visitors attempted to capture some massive spiders to take home.
“People were taking them, almost like a pet or a souvenir,” said Pam Denahy, La Junta’s director of tourism and events. “We certainly don’t encourage that, because this is their natural habitat. Even though it’s called a ‘migration,’ technically it’s their mating season. It’s part of their life cycle. View them but don’t disrupt them.”
With another tarantula viewing season currently in progress there, town officials who see the annual arachnid emergence as a way to promote tourism are concerned about potential impacts by humans behaving badly.
“We’re trying to figure out how we want to promote this, but we want (the tarantulas) to be able to be safe in their natural habitat, not be taken away and treated as pets or sold,” Denahy said. “It’s unfortunate because when we first started this, we thought of all the safety issues — people pulling over on the road — but never did we think people would be taking tarantulas.”
Nature should be regarded as sacred, left the way we find it for all of us to appreciate and enjoy. In a world filled with polarization and alienation, shouldn’t that be the one thing we can all agree on?
Read More:Commentary: More tales of humans behaving badly in the outdoors