Let's not be too eager to flush our public toilets away

November 14, 2007 12:00 am

When the news first hit, it seemed like a bad joke: In September the Stanislaus National Forest announced that it would close the toilet at its Rim of the World overlook because too many people are using it.

You read that right: The Forest Service said pumping, cleaning and supplying the popular latrine with toilet paper ran more than $8,000 a year — a price the federal agency said it could not afford.

So the preliminary decision was made to haul it away. That meant that thousands of Yosemite-bound travelers must either have the foresight to stop at Groveland's Mary Laveroni Park, hold it until the national park's entrance station or relieve themselves in the great outdoors.

Whether this was part of the Stanislaus Forest staff's thinking is uncertain. More sure, however, is that forest officials looked clear past the notion that high public use is a good thing and, in fact, a gauge of success.

Flawed logic led to the Rim of the World toilet's inclusion on a list of campgrounds, picnic areas and latrines scheduled for closure, reduced hours or higher fees. Under this thinking, latrines that are scarcely used would be spared while the forest's most popular would be closed.

Extend the logic further, and the feds would close the gates on national parks drawing millions of visitors while outlying, far less popular destinations would remain open for business.

There is, however, a happy ending to this so far illogical story: First the Stanislaus National Forest extended the comment period on its recreational hit list. Then, after receiving many thoughtful and heartfelt pleas — including a couple from the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors — the Rim's restroom was spared.

The Forest Service is a huge federal agency with many thousands of employees and with tentacles that extend clear to the Mother Lode from Washington, D.C. When it responds quickly to local concerns, it is gratifying.

Also gratifying is the forest's resolve to look for funding to keep the restroom in business. Yosemite National Park — destination for an estimated 95 percent of cars which stop at Rim of the World — is a logical partner. So is Caltrans, which has its own rest stops on highways up and down the state.

"If we can afford a war in Iraq, we can certainly afford one toilet on 120," observed a Rim of the World user last week.

Don't underestimate the importance of public restrooms. Strong opinions on the issue were voiced last week in The Democrat's "Seen and Heard." The threatened county closure of Mi-Wuk Village's "five-star comfort station" has spurred community outrage and a petition campaign.

But while the Stanislaus National Forest has decided it can keep its Rim of the World toilet open, it can't afford to keep everything open. In fact the ongoing Recreation Facility Analysis — aka, hit list — is part of a nationwide Forest Service effort to close little-used campgrounds and picnic areas or cut their hours in an effort to save tens of millions of dollars in maintenance costs.

So maybe the brief presence of the Rim of the World rest stop on the Stanislaus National Forest's RFA list was a red flag for forest users and neighbors.

Yes, Tuolumne County's most scenic and spectacular loo was spared the red pencil this time around. But next time, things may be different. For without vigilance and attention, your favorite campground, picnic area or restroom could rise to the top of that list.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.