The secret is out: Rise in visitors at snowplay area has forest managers scrambling
WILLIAMS, Ariz, — Kaibab National Forest managers are scrambling to get ahead of a sudden influx of sledders at Oak Hill Snowplay area in Parks.
Following the Christmas break snowstorm and last week’s triple storm system, users inundated the area and left a trail of trash behind them.
“Oak Hill has always been a locals secret,” said Williams District Ranger Danelle Harrison.
Along with traffic congestion, accumulation of trash from winter visitors marred the winter landscape and became a problem for forest employees and other users.
Snow play area cause for fun and concern
Pieces of plastic sleds, punctured tubes, food wrappers, and drink containers were left strewn around the hillside, parking lot and sled runs.
Harrison said the visitation increased this year when Oak Hill was included in a new snow play map produced by the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce.
Oak Hill Snowplay area was formerly a small ski area with three runs. Kaibab National Forest transformed the area into a sledding hill which was historically used mostly by locals from the Parks and Williams areas.
“It’s not so hidden anymore,” Harrison said.
Along with the increase in users came an increase of trash. Harrison said during the Christmas break, 12 Kaibab employees using six trucks removed over 1,000 pounds of sleds and trash from the area.
“It was lining both of the runs, around the shelter area and piled next to the vault toilet,” said Kaibab Recreation Manager Lisa Jones.
Harrison said managers are glad people are visiting the forest, but hope people will respect the land.
“It is great, we want people to come out and enjoy their National Forests,” Harrison said. “But we’ve just never had the amount of recreationalists there, nor have we had the issues with trash and sleds. So I think it kind of caught us off guard.”
Following the Christmas break influx, managers got together to discuss options for managing the area better. They decided to send information about the problem over their social media accounts and try to staff employees at the area when possible.
“We don’t have an extensive staff of law enforcement rangers,” Harrison said. “Between the Tusayan and Williams Ranger Districts, that’s almost 900,000 acres for a small staff.
Harrison said typically during the winter months, officers are dealing with timber theft violations, illegal dumping, hunting patrols and winter driving issues.
“Everything is really triage for them,” Harrison said. “People are on the National Forest committing serious crimes. They do try to pass by Oak Hill but it’s a lot of ground to cover. When they are caught up in an incident it’s an all-day affair.”
Harrison said the Kaibab has received many positive responses to the problem and many people have stepped up to help. Local residents have offered their help and the Parks General Store, just down the road from Oak Hill, has offered free recycling of sleds at their business.
“They came up with that on their own,” Jones said. “We spoke to them yesterday telling them how much we appreciated it.”
Kaibab managers looked for employees who were willing to shift their duties to spend a day at the area and monitor the situation.
“We’re taking an all hands on deck approach knowing we don’t have a lot of staffing,” Harrison said.
Since it’s not wildfire season, Bob Blasi, Kaibab Fire Information Officer, was able to spend several weekends at the area and said people were very respectful while he was there.
“One of the days I was there, two Boy Scout troops from Surprise and Paradise Valley took the initiative to help,” Blasi said. “They saw people discarding chunks of broken sleds and got them to bring them out.”
Blasi said parking was a major issue at the area. The lot is dirt and only designed for eight to 10 vehicles. When the parking lot filled, people began parking along Route 66, creating a traffic hazard.
“The main problem was mostly two-wheel drive cars trying to get in there,” he said.
Jones said the increase in visitation has made managers look at other options on the Kaibab for those seeking snow play opportunities. She said Elk Ridge Ski Area and Outdoor Recreation Area has more options for sledders.
“Elk Ridge is a good alternative,” Harrison said. “It has plowed roads.”
Harrison said road conditions limit the areas where visitors can go to play in the snow. She said only a handful of forest roads are plowed in the winter.
“You don’t want the same problem ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) and DPS (Department of Public Safety) have where people see a good hill and decide to stop right there alongside the interstate,” Jones said. “It’s a balancing act. We don’t have a lot of terrain that has an appropriate place to stop.”
Jones said managers are looking for more areas winter visitors can use on the Kaibab. Currently they are encouraging visitors to cross-country ski or snowshoe to Keyhole Sink on Route 66 and the R.S. Hill Loop trail off of the Spring Valley road.
“We’re looking at areas like Kaibab Lake too,” Jones said. “But right now there is too much snow to safely get in there. I got stuck in there the other day.”
Harrison said managers will continue to monitor the area and try to get the word out about the trash problem. She said she is hopeful that people will step-up and take more responsibility for their usage.
“I appreciate the public response we’ve gotten,” Harrison said. “Having folks wanting to come out and volunteer and help us with awareness has been a really great and positive outcome from this. Our goal is to be able to share as much of the forest as possible with the public.”