While development is threatening access to the foothills along the Wasatch Front, it's creating a different problem in Ferguson Canyon, just south of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
With its tall cliffs, Ferguson is a popular spot for rock climbers. But it's also popular with partiers who are creating a mess.Pieces of glass, pop-can tabs and bottle tops, tin foil and cigarette butts are scattered in the dirt. Rocks are spray painted or left in fire ring circles. Party-goers have hacked bark off trees, burned them or chopped them down to sit on or use for firewood. Fires are prohibited in the area because of dry conditions.
Getting into Ferguson Canyon is not a problem. And, since that easy access has created problems, "people are afraid if you get access (to any canyon), this is what's going to happen," said Blase Reardon, lead wilderness ranger with the Salt Lake Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. "But that's not necessarily a given." It's a management issue, not an access issue, Reardon says.
Foothill development has helped create the vandalism problem because it eliminates open space previously used for parties, Reardon said, and allows youths - many of whom are underage drinkers - to drive within a half-mile of the canyon, an isolated place where they "can get away from the sheriff."
In general, climbers and hikers are not responsible for the vandalism. "Most climbers are pretty good at picking up trash," said Steve Dean, who frequently climbs in the canyon. "A lot of kids are up here on the weekend. I see a lot of beer, a lot of boom boxes."
"It's not an access issue so much as it is how we control the people who are going to be there," Reardon said. Front canyons along the Wasatch Front have not been managed as intensely by the Salt Lake Ranger District as the higher, more popular lake basins like Red Pine Lake, Dog Lake, Lake Blanche and Desolation Lake, because of limited resources and because the higher areas traditionally see more use by the public.
The tendency, Reardon said, is for management to focus on the "really scenic attractions rather than the less scenic, but very important front canyons." Those more accessible canyons "sort of got left behind" by management because the other areas had more use and the lower canyons hadn't been a problem until now. More resources and a shift in priority have "enabled us to look at the wilderness edge areas and work on what's been neglected."
Recently, Reardon led a group of volunteers to clean up Ferguson Canyon for the fourth time in a year. The 29 volunteers worked an hour and a half scattering rocks used for fire rings, picking up garbage and dead wood.
"It was a noble thing to do," said volunteer Dave Barker, a student at the University of Utah.
Reardon believes the cleanup, which he says he never wants to have to do again, will send a signal to both homeowners and canyon users.
He hopes local homeowners will realize that people care about the canyon and are trying to do something about the problem.
As for recreationists and other canyon users, Reardon hopes it will "develop a sense of ownership that isn't there they are willing to tell people not to cut down trees (and to) realize their own impact. Until someone starts demonstrating that they care about the place, no one (else) is going to care about it themselves," he said.