FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- All is not well in the ponderosa pine forests that make Flagstaff a place outdoor enthusiasts love to call home.
The problem is simple. Every year, the Forest Service is recording record numbers of trail users -- usually 3 percent to 5 percent more then the year before. And along with the increase in traffic has come an increase in the relatively small percentage of users who wreak havoc on the resource.
Forest officials are concerned about growing problems with vandalism of signs and trailhead information displays -- a concern because it consumes already stressed budgets -- and friction between different types of recreationists. They're also worried about a growing network of illegal motocross trails that are quickly destroying the integrity of the forest around Flagstaff.
''Taken as a whole picture, this is a very serious problem,'' said Ken Frederick of the Peaks and Mormon Lake Ranger Districts.
Forest Service recreation funds, which remain steady from year to year, ''will certainly not keep up with a 3 to 5 percent increase in users every year,'' said Gene Waldrip, district ranger for the Peaks Ranger District.
Frederick, Waldrip and the rangers who work on the forest every day are issuing a call to forest users to be ethical while in the woods.
They're asking forest users to follow ''Leave no Trace'' ethics and to report violations -- complete with license plate information and descriptions.
Carl Smith works on both the Coconino and the Kaibab national forests. He calls himself ''The Sign Guy,'' said he recently replaced signs on a single road between Munds Park and Mormon Lake. On his first drive-through, he found one sign that remained intact of about 40.
When in place, they fill a variety of purposes, such as alerting drivers to sharp curves or dangerous parts of the road, and marking intersections.
Smith said the effort to replace the signs cost $3,800 in Forest Service funds.
And in some places, it seems like a never-ending battle. Take Shultz Pass road, Forest Road 420.
Because its number is popular among marijuana smokers as a symbol for the drug, the signs along Shultz Pass rarely stay put, said Andrew Coriell, a law enforcement officer on the Coconino National Forest.
Smith said one large sign that provides direction at the intersection of Shultz Pass and Elden Lookout roads, has had to be replaced three times that he can recall. And that may push the Forest Service to employ the use of indestructible signs, which tend to be up to three times more expensive.
The Forest Service already has gone to costly measures to make sure signs demarcating sensitive wilderness areas stay put.
Chad Condrotte, trails and wilderness ranger on the Coconino, said each sign used on wilderness trails costs about $226.
That includes the price of the oak face, a juniper post that forest officials cut themselves, and the on-the-clock time and labor required to hike the materials into remote locations, dig post holes and install the signs.
Rangers have replaced 50 such signs in the past year, most of them on the San Francisco Peaks.
''I think people are stealing them for their bedroom walls,'' Condrotte said.
In response, he's begun to make them as tamperproof as possible by putting bolts clear through the assemblies, sealing them with flat nuts and bending the ends over.
Besides money, there's a far more serious consequence of vandalism.
''If somebody dies because they get lost, the person who steals the sign is the person we're going to hold responsible,'' Condrotte said.
On the Net:
Coconino National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/
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