From: Greg Thorne, Friend of Cougar
To: Lynn Burditt, District Ranger
Thank you for meeting with Maria and me last week. I think we came a little closer to understanding our mutual concerns and reality at Cougar.
There was one point though that I think I misunderstood during our discussion that may be why it sparked a heated reply from you. You responded that you didn't want any risk level at all to exist at the Springs, not just a very low level. I didn't realize you were probably referring to personal risk or liability. I agree that you personally shouldn't have any risk at the Springs, and I would not be satsified until your personal risk is zero. Any remaining risk should be not your liability, but the personal responsibility of visitors.
Individuals assume certain risks when venturing out into the woods. Twisted ankles are one risk of hiking. In my mind, there will be injuries and we should seek a very low level of incidents, but we have to balance this with the opportunity for people to enjoy their recreation.
I hope you don't think I am making light of the sexual concerns you have at Cougar by using this example. A twisted ankle is a painful and serious injury. There have been incidents of these I am personally aware of two while I've been there. I understand today the focus is on sexual incidents, but tomorrow it may be on the trail and putting in sidewalk cement as they have done at Belknap. I would oppose this vigorously as I oppose the banning of nudity. We want it natural! Unadulterated nature is the beauty at Cougar.
Many people consider Cougar Hot Springs the greatest place on Earth. You are to be commended. You deserve much more credit for this than you have received so far.
I share your concerns about the public image of Cougar. You related some of the comments from the far reaches of the World-wide Web and the concern that these might contribute to inappropriate behavior by visitors. I searched for comments on Cougar, and I came up with what may have been what you saw. There's an e-mail posted to a public web site on hot springs. In a lengthy message about Cougar, it includes the comment "...many beautiful young women pleasing to the eye." If public information was limited, yet included this comment, as in the case now, it could attract people to Cougar for unhealthy reasons. To counter this problem, we could provide more complete, information in an easy to access fashion, such as on the cougar.org web site.
Swimwear itself can be a problem. We might have more cause for concern of sexual predation if men and women were wearing enticing swimwear -- various kinds of outfits in styles many men and women find more provocative than simple nudity. Some clothes tend to create curiousity at a conscious or subconsious level. Swimwear, especially, draws attention to particular areas of the body, sexually highlighting an otherwise whole, nonsexual person.
Nudity is relaxing. It removes the stress we feel when we're wearing unnecessary clothing.
Some people will prefer wearing clothes for various reasons. Choice of dress or nudity should be a right that is protected. I see it as a Constitutional, First Amendment freedom.
Your concerns at Cougar will naturally diverge somewhat from users' concerns. This is to be expected. But I think it is important that both yours and theirs be heard and understood. Until we recognize and respect each other's concerns we cannot move forward.
I saw more negative comments on the Internet about Cougar law enforcement than about any sexuality by the visitors. The same in my surveys. This may be why so many visitors to Cougar are upset with the FS.
On a beautiful, warm, relaxing summer day, men and women tell of being ordered by an officer to exit the lagoon, get dressed and march out to the parking lot and to receive a ticket for swimming nude. These are the kinds of incidents that really bother people. Theyre trying to relax, recreate and emerse themselves in nature. They're not apparently offending anyone. Yet they're being cited by law enforcement. I dont condone breaking the law, but in this case perhaps having such an unnatural law is the problem. When you consider how the public is enjoying Cougar, these experiences are important.
I have been at the Springs themselves an average of 9 out of every 84 hours each week, which is roughly 10% of the daylight time over the last 3 years. But surely the other hundreds of Friends of Cougar can fill in much of the gaps. FS personnel are only actually at the Springs (Im not talking about the parking lot) about 15 minutes a week on average, and they dont often chat candidly with the visitors. I have made 500+ visits to Cougar over 7 years, and because I talk with an average of 5 people everytime I visit, I've talked with thousands of other visitors about their experiences at Cougar. I will ask them about or theyll offer stories about their previous visits to Cougar. They love Cougar. The problems that loom largest in their eyes are universally litter, cigarette smoke and lack of courtesy from the Forest Service Law Enforcement. Nudity is not a problem to Cougar visitors. It is extremely popular. Virtually 100% of visitors want nudity allowed as an option.
The problems you want to address may not be raised by visitors, but are very important. One is inappropriate sexual behavior and the other is the image of Cougar and how the wrong image might attract people for the wrong reasons.
We can solve these problems while allowing nudity. I'd like to propose these solutions:
Problem: Inappropriate sexual behavior.
Solution: Post a sign on the board above the Springs. It might read "Youre welcome to wear clothes at Cougar. Although nudity is common, overt sexual activity is not allowed. Please report any incidents, and where possible, ask the subjects to cease."
Currently there is no obvious policy on sexual behavior. We have less drinking, fewer problems with dogs and marijuana smoking now because there are signs posted clearly delineating what is not permitted. When there are rules posted, it helps support those who want to speak-up and tell those people acting inappropriately. It also clarifies any doubts. Some couples are inclined to have sex, for example, if they think they are not offending anyone. If sex is prohibited, and a sign is clearly posted, it will go a long way toward eradicating the problem. The same with masturbation.
I'm told there was a man masturbating in one of the pools one day while gazing upon a woman in a bikini who was some distance from him. She noticed him. A concerned fellow (the one who told me this story) approached her and asked if she would like him to admonish the man. She replied, "Shut up, and mind your own business." (Perhaps she was enjoying it -- I don't know.) Had there been a rule against overt sexual behavior, it would have made it easier to admonish the man directly. Posted rules remove doubt in the minds of visitors which freedoms are allowed and which are not.
Problem: Stray comments on public messages posted on the internet such as "beautiful young women pleasing to the eye."
Solution: We can counter this with more detailed information of our own. No one will bother hunting out and reading offbeat e-mail comments if there is ample information that is accurate and complete in an easy to read format on an easy to locate site. Once people have their questions answered about Cougar, including directions, they wont hunt and hunt for more. I would be willing to put more useful information on the Friends of Cougar site www.Cougar.org that could proactively express the scene we want to have at Cougar and provide directions. I could submit it to the search engines. I have not done so previously as we were concerned about Cougar already being too crowded, but the fee seems to have eliminated that problem.
Thanks again for meeting with Maria. Most of all I want your decision to be fully informed, rather than based on incomplete information, half-truths, projected from brief 2 minute visits by FS personnel to the Springs with their personal biases, rather than the aggregate observations and personal experiences of the larger community of hot springs users. Banning nudity would break the hearts of thousands of good people. And if done unnecessarily, would anger these American citizens toward the Forest Service and hence the Federal Government. We need less conflict in our nation, not more.
It's an impossible challenge for you to get a clear picture of what is going on at Cougar without soaking there and by relying only on brief staff visits. Thank you for all the time you've spent taking phone calls, reading letters and meeting with concerned users. I know I speak for all of the Friends of Cougar when I say we want to help bring you the first-hand perspective. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of users willing to share information with you to help fill in the gaps. Ask us whatever you need to know! We want your decisions to be as fully informed as possible. Together, we can find better ways to ensure the progress made this summer continues toward maintaining a safe and enjoyable environment at Cougar.
Your comments would be most welcome.