Nonprofit tackles overuse of Sykes Hot Springs, encourages campers to lay off.

Tread Lightly: Volunteer rangers Steven Benoit (left) and Lynn Moncher start their patrol at Big Sur Station. In the absence of Forest Service rangers or permits, volunteers pick up the slack.

Sykes Hot Springs steam in a lovely little rock-lined river canyon 11 miles deep along Big Sur’s Pine Ridge Trail. At this landmark in the Ventana Wilderness, Lynn Moncher pulls on gloves and tackles human excrement.

On a recent visit to a campground near Sykes, she found an overflowing pit toilet and helped fill a pillowcase-sized bag with littered toilet paper. “People were pooping everywhere,” she says.

Moncher, a Seaside resident, is a volunteer wilderness ranger with the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance (VWA), whose leaders worry Sykes is getting too much love.

“We’re talking about wilderness that is supposed to be untrammeled,” VWA spokesman Richard Popchak says. “The myth of Sykes Hot Springs makes people think if they’re among the chosen few to get to this place, they’ll have some solitude.”

Patrick Bailey, wilderness and trails manager for the Forest Service’s Monterey District, says the overcrowding is part of the hot springs’ history. “Sykes has always been an attraction, even when I was a kid backpacking in the ’70s,” he says. “That was in the hippie days, and it was swamped with people.”

The Pine Ridge Trail from Big Sur Station to Sykes is still the most popular in the district, he adds. A study more than a decade ago estimated about 30,000 trail trips a year, and VWA volunteers have counted more than 250 campers on holiday weekends. The Forest Service advises Sykes can accommodate about 20.

The difference between now and the hippie days: staffing. Bailey says there were five full-time Monterey District rangers in the late 1970s, and now there are none. “Funding for everything across the board [for the Forest Service] has gone down tremendously,” he says.

VWA is working to fill that gap. Since 2011, its volunteer wilderness rangers have patrolled the Pine Ridge Trail to educate hikers about fire safety, pick up trash and relay their findings to the Forest Service. They’re also clearing fallen trees from the trail so mules can haul out a giant trash stash the rangers can’t carry. From January through June, 13 rangers have put in more than 1,100 hours, spoken with 681 hikers, removed 69 illegal campsites and hauled out 292 pounds of trash, according to VWA stats.

In the program’s two years, VWA has matched almost $60,000 in grant funding from the National Forest Foundation to supply its volunteers with training, tools, supplies and travel stipends. The Forest Service provides them with uniforms, training facilities and radios.

Popchak says hiker education is more important than pointing fingers. “It’s not a blame on the Monterey Ranger District; they do what they can with the resources they have,” he says. “And there’s nothing malicious about the people who go back there. They just don’t know [the rules].”

One of the most important rules, in wilderness like a tinderbox, involves fire safety. On July 23, Los Padres officials banned campfires, cooking stoves and smoking in the backcountry until the end of the declared wildfire season.

In light of the overuse, a VWA webpage about Sykes even encourages hikers to camp elsewhere.

“People go to Sykes because there are mediocre tubs to sit in. Because of that, it’s being overly impacted,” Popchak says. “There are some amazing places in the Ventana Wilderness that offer a variety of experiences with more solitude.”

(1) comment

Lorax

Gotta love the Ventana Wilderness Alliance![smile]

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