At first glance from atop a hill overlooking the Burnt Ranch (a.k.a. Croll Property), the open land area looks nice and peaceful. But as one gets closer, the vandalism and damage look painfully obvious.
The Burnt Ranch, located just east of Paulden, houses the Upper Verde River Wildlife Area. The Arizona Game and Fish Department bought it in 1996 to protect the native fish habitat, but it also doubles as a recreation area.
However, some campers and other recreational warriors causing damage and erosion to the area may force Game and Fish officials to rethink whether to keep it open to the public.
Off-road use by quad runners, motorcycles and other all-terrain vehicles has created trails and roads that Game and Fish did not intend. Future users see the paths and assume that they’re legal, but they’re not, said Wildlife Manager Scott Poppenberger and Field Supervisor Eric Gardner.
Also, vandals cut through several fences in order to get further access to the area. They cut one section of fence located just 25 feet away from an access gate; Gardner surmised that the vandals were simply too lazy to go around to the gate every time, and instead cut their own access route.
Blazed trails and ruined fences aren’t all that vandals are doing. Poppenberger posted two new signs in July in a camping area stating that off-road travel is prohibited. The next day, he returned to the site and found the signs riddled with bullet holes. Other signs suffer similar damage regularly. This not only constitutes vandalism, but careless misuse of a firearm, Poppenberger noted.
Several weeks ago, vandals left behind a large amount of ashes and broken bottles, as well as other debris. The pile sat six to eight inches tall.
Vandals also used several pieces of sheet metal from a collapsed building on the ranch to create a makeshift dam so that they could have a swimming hole without the rapid water flow.
These acts may seem perfectly innocent to some of the people who commit them, but it’s disruptive to the wildlife habitat.
"We’re trying to protect the riparian habitat down here," Poppenberger said. "That’s another reason that the off-road vehicle travel is not permitted."
Occurrences of vandalism and off-road use in the area existed long before now, but recent road renovations may explain the exponential increase in use this year.
"It’s kind of a double-edged sword," Gardner said. "We fixed the road so the public can enjoy it, but the (vandalism) issue has gone up since then."
Poppenberger noted that the area is used year-round, but more in the summer months during the evenings and on weekends. When he patrols the area, Poppenberger says he finds anywhere from eight people in a small group to 15 vehicles, each carrying three or four people on average.
"Of the people that come to use this place, the vast majority want to come down and enjoy it – the wildlife and the riparian – and just have a relaxing, peaceful time," Poppenberger said. "It’s just the 1 or 2 percent that are creating the issues we’re concerned about."
Vandalizing Game and Fish property carries a heavier penalty when it’s done while the person is hunting or fishing. The person faces revocation of the hunting or fishing license for up to five years.
Gardner said Game and Fish might eventually block off public access to Burnt Ranch if the vandalism doesn’t decrease. But first, the department is trying other things.
"We are stepping up our patrols now because of these issues," Gardner said.
Game and Fish officials are also trying more public outreach – contacting campers and all-terrain vehicle users about what’s going on and encouraging them to report any off-road use or vandalism.
Gardner hopes that community policing and increased Game and Fish patrols will curb the vandalism.
Game and Fish could make the area an organized recreational site, but renovations are not cheap. The cost of an outhouse, composted and self-contained without pumping, is $25,000, Poppenberger said.
To make it an organized site would require a large financial commitment, with only $8 million to $10 million available annually for Game and Fish from the Heritage grant fund, made possible through Arizona lottery money.
Closing off access to the public will be only a last resort, Gardner said.
"We don’t want to close down public access, unless we feel like we’ve done everything we can to give people the opportunity to understand that it’s a privilege, and to treat (the wildlife habitat) the right way, with respect," Gardner said.
Anyone who witnesses any off-road use or vandalism should call Game and Fish’s "Operation Game Thief" hotline, 1-800-352-0700. Poppenberger recommends trying to get license plate numbers, as well as vehicle and people descriptions so that officials have more to go on when trying to catch vandals in the act..