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Trashed bathrooms, discarded masks, broken sleds: Revelers make a mess in the mountains

Julian, Calif., resident Virginia Duval filled several bags with trash left behind by visitors to the area.
(Virginia Duval)

Residents of Julian, Mount Laguna and the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California are asking people who visit the mountain areas to revel in the snow to do what the signs say: “Pack it in. Pack it out.”

Photos shared by the U.S. Forest Service over the past few days show dirty public restrooms, toppled trash cans, and boxes, bags and broken sleds left behind, apparently by visitors who came to play in the region’s higher elevations last week.

On Monday, Julian resident Virginia Duval picked up five bags of trash along Highway 79, near a popular hill for sledding in the area. The trash she collected was spread over several acres of land, and she recounted some of her findings.

“I picked up masks galore, tons of latex gloves (why?), food wrappers, empty water bottles and a bunch of broken beer bottles,” Duval said. “Oh yeah ... and a bunch of broken sleds.”

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Locals say more people are venturing to the backcountry because of COVID-19 restrictions that have shuttered sites in more urban areas. Rami Abdel of the San Diego Backcountry Visitors Bureau said that the aftermaths of snow days is an ongoing challenge that reached a new high in 2020.

He said first-time visitors are often unfamiliar with mountain and snow etiquette — such as staying off private land, parking in designated areas and taking their trash with them.

Several locals who are part of the Julian Connection Facebook group page reported that during last week’s snowfall, outsiders used their front lawns for recreation areas. Several said visitors did not heed specific “No trespassing” signs, and some said they had to yell at people to leave. They mentioned years past when crowds would march their sleds to the top of the Julian cemetery and slide down over gravesites.

Mountain area residents have braced for the influx of visitors. Long lines out the doors of shops selling fresh pies bursting with Julian apples — lines made longer because of social distancing protocols — were expected, and mostly appreciated by those who need the business.

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Dolores Gomez, who runs a popular restaurant and store at Lake Cuyamaca below the hills of Julian, said the snow brought what she called a nearly overwhelming amount of patrons to them, and said she was “very thankful, because without the support they give us, there is no way I’d be here.”

But nearly one week after the storm, with the snow giving way to sunshine and blue skies, residents were united in their concern over those who wreaked havoc, sharing stories of trespassers trampling the hillsides and revelers leaving litter behind.

“We aren’t Big Bear or Mountain High,” Kathy Ewing-Finley said. “We don’t have any designated snow-play areas, so when people arrive ready to play ... their plan is already set on trespassing and illegal behavior before they even get out of the car.”

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Eva Hatch, who lives in Julian and has a website called Mountain Made, said the backcountry is not designed to accommodate the spontaneous and large number of visitors.

“Our local emergency agencies are staffed to accommodate the local population, and staff is not increased on busy tourism days,” Hatch said. “There is no local government entity to clean up after the visitors. Additionally, we have no way to dispose of the trash left behind.”

A dirty bathroom at the Mount Laguna visitors center.
Overwhelmed rangers at the Mount Laguna visitors center dealt with trashed bathrooms last week while trying to keep the recreation area safe.
(U.S. Forest Service)

Julian resident David Shorey agreed that the lack of a snow-play area was a major challenge, saying it snows so infrequently in San Diego that when people hear that it’s snowing in the mountains, “everyone wants to come up... [and] expects to be able to come frolic,” although most of the best spots to enjoy the snow are on private property.

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“If there was a way to create a snow play area where snow could also be made, it would spread the numbers out,” Shorey said. “Also, those who come up here are used to more urban resources, like street sweeping and roadside trash pick-up that we don’t have as much of up here. The reality is that for an area with [a small population], an onslaught of 10,000 to 30,000 people just overwhelms everything.”

Tracy Knapp, acting recreation and lands officer for the U.S. Forest Service, who works out of the Descanso Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest, said some colleagues were overwhelmed and noted that trash cans in all areas were overflowing and public bathrooms were trashed. All of that affected staff and volunteers — already in short supply.

Knapp said she and the rangers were also concerned about wildlife.

“They are drawn to the sites and eat discarded fast food in and around the trash cans, [items] that are not their natural sources of food,” Knapp said. “It is not good for the ecosystem.”

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Knapp said that once the snow melted, staff could tell that people strayed from designated trails and roads, both by foot and by vehicle. Such trespassing damages resources and seriously affects the environment. She said the idea of “leave no trace” is one that she hopes will catch on with visitors.

“Don’t make it look like you were there,” Knapp said. “Leave the area better than you found it. Stay up to date with our protocols, current restrictions and what trails are open. Respect any closures. We close things for public safety.”

Trash is strewn along Sunrise Highway in the Cleveland National Forest.
(U.S. Forest Service)

Julian is not alone. Those living in the Mount Laguna area reported similar issues with trespassing, traffic and trash last week.

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Abdel said people need to understand the impact their visits have on San Diego County’s remote communities, public lands, state parks and open space recreation areas.

“We need [the public’s] help to protect and conserve our public lands and natural resources in the backcountry,” Abdel said.

Pearlman writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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