On August 28, 2010, in the Ah-shi-sle-pah Badlands, while hiking back to my car late in the afternoon, I found myself following tire tracks where there should never be tire tracks. Shocked that anyone could drive down there at all, I was also outraged at the act itself. Sure enough, the tracks led up one of the bentonite hills and followed the old jeep trail to the parking area. Someone had driven around the three metal stakes which were placed across the road.
On the drive home I brooded about it. What bothered me most was not that some people were so thoughtless or destructive, but that the people who had made those tracks might not even have known they were doing wrong: the old signage was gone, a casualty of sun and pervasive high winds in that remote place. Just as more and more people were visiting these badlands, there was now no reminder left of their status: A Wilderness Study Area (WSA), just short of actual wilderness status, but subject to some of the same rules. No mechanized vehicles are allowed, including cars, trucks, all terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, and mountain bikes.
Two weeks later I visited the BLM offices in Farmington, New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management oversees many of the public lands in the west, including Ah-shi-sle-pah. They signed me in as a guest, and one of their employees (I wish I had gotten her name) spent a good amount of time with me. She showed me maps and other documents, and assured me that the person who dealt with the badlands was in a meeting at the time, but he would certainly be informed of my concerns. I had done what I could, I supposed, but left unsure that I had really accomplished anything.
Two months later I returned to Ah-shi-sle-pah and got a small but early Christmas present. The BLM had installed two signs out near the county road. Bureaucracy lumbers along, often an impediment, but many of these folks care about the same things you care about. And they work for you, so let them know what you think, hopefully in a constructive manner. You have nothing to lose but time, and everything to gain. Here are some more agencies which deserve to hear from you: the US Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
On my first trip to the Bisti Badlands, I followed parallel tracks as I hiked, making a beeline to some rather famous rocks. I think that those tracks were made by a photographer pulling a wheeled case, something perhaps not permitted. Another time I met two young guys at the parking area who had arrived in an old car with all of the windows broken out. They were using a mountain bike, definitely not permitted, as a shuttle to the area where they had set up camp. The tracks left by these visitors were visable for months afterward. Were they aware of that? On two occasions I have seen ATV tracks in the Bisti, and I suspect that those people just didn't care, since knocking down fences seemed okay.
So what can people who care about the badlands do to preserve their fragile features for future generations? I have not seen any real evidence of willful destruction out there, but the ballooning numbers of visitors over the few years that I have known the badlands make me frightened for their health. I think that all we can do is try to impress upon others the fragility of these places, and show by example how to walk lightly in them. One problem I note is the need people have to see particular rocks, taking the same picturess which everone else takes. This concentrates the wear and tear on the badlands immensely. Posting GPS coordinates is a leading culprit here, and I firmly believe that finding a place through blind exploration is more rewarding than following a beaten path. I am probably wasting my time suggesting this.....so it goes.
Over several years, people from both sides of the Atlantic have asked me for the location of a rock called the "King of Wings." It was wrongly suggested on a European forum that I was hiding the location, but at the time I had no idea where it even was!
In January, 2010, after promising secrecy, someone had told me in January of that year that the King was located in the Ah-shi-sle-pah WSA, and I proceeded to scour the area on numerous trips. No luck! In October, 2010, I found the King of Wings. I'll go on record only this clue for you: the King of Wings is NOT in Ah-shi-sle-pah! You don't need my help anyway; In October, 2012, the word got out, and the coordinates are posted elsewhere. It was the only location I ever kept secret, and I'm still concerned about it due to land ownership issues and the fragility of the area. As I pointed out on that European forum, the folks who kept the secret were never telling others that they could not go there, just that they were not going to tell them where to go. It was like a favorite fishing hole, yet I knew deep inside that eventually the location would get out. Now that there is no secret, I only ask that others please, please, take care of the site when you visit.
My search for the King rewarded me with many other wonderful "secret" locations, so if you ask nicely, I'll be happy to oblige you with information about my photos. In many ways I'm relieved that the King has been exposed, and I can get back to those other places. The "King of Wings" is just one rock, but I discovered that the search was the important thing, leading to many, many hidden treasures in the area.