Wilderness ethics: Beyond "pack it in, pack it out" – January 1997
It’s 5 p.m., and you’ve hiked 10 miles today. Your 35-pound pack has mysteriously metamorphosed into 70 pounds. Mercifully, your companion says, “Well, I reckon it’s about time to look for a campsite.” You spot a clearing through the trees and make a beeline for it, unbuckling your waistband in anticipation of dropping the pack. Then stop in your tracks …
A fire ring is still smoking with the remains of last night’s bonfire. Abandoned plastic rope hangs from large nails randomly hammered into trees, and a live branch shows fresh axe marks. Cans, plastic bags and broken glass are strewn about. And every rock within 100 feet has a frill of toilet paper coyly peeking out from under it.
This is becoming an all-too familiar scenario for backcountry visitors. The ability of wild places to recover from damage decreases dramatically with increased use. Because wilderness use continues to grow, practices that were once acceptable can no longer be sustained. As such, these practices must be continually refined to minimize impact.
Good wilderness ethics, or manners, are universal concepts for all outdoors users. Minimizing impact depends on attitude and awareness, judgment and experience, as well as a site’s soil, vegetation, moisture levels and prior use.
The following principles are some of the guidelines of the National Outdoor Leadership School educational program, “Leave No Trace” (1-800-332-4100):
— Know the area and what to expect, including weather, crowding and type of terrain. Plan for enough daylight and energy to select a site carefully – fatigue, bad weather and lateness are no excuse for choosing a poor or ecologically fragile site. Camp in existing campsites rather than impact a new area. If you must establish a new site, make it at least 200 feet from water and trails (a ranger will now cite you if you don’t) on a durable surface, such as rock or sand, with no vegetation. Erase as many signs of your impact as possible when you leave.
— Minimize the use of fires. In the past, building a huge “white man’s” blaze was de rigueur. Aside from the fact that it’s illegal in most backcountry areas now to make a fire, it’s simply uncool to risk starting a wildfire or to deny soils and animals the decomposing timber they need for regeneration and shelter. If you must build a fire, use pre-existing fire rings but don’t create a new ring. Build a small fire on as nonporous a surface as possible, extinguish it completely (until you can put your hand on it) then broadcast the ashes.
— Hike only on existing trails to minimize impact on soils and wildlife. Never cut across trail switchbacks. Nothing burns my bacon like the sight of someone careening down a hill causing erosion and destroying plants just to save a few minutes and distance on the trail.
— Avoid damaging live trees and plants. Do not remove deadwood from a living tree and don’t, for heaven’s sake, chop on a live one for firewood. Don’t pick wildflowers – few people know that this is a misdemeanor in California.
— Leave natural and cultural artifacts in place. This is one of the toughest to follow – I confess to having an extensive collection of illegally harvested bones and animal parts. The federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 makes it illegal to remove cultural (i.e., manmade, often prehistoric) artifacts and fossils from a site. Regardless of legality, leave objects of beauty or interest where you find them so others may enjoy them and study them.
In Utah this fall I saw the two extremes of this ethos. In the backcountry of Grand Gulch National Monument, Chris and I found 800-to-1,000-year-old Anasazi corncobs, pottery shards and stone walls unmolested and lying in the open after many conscientious hikers had examined them. But later, we camped in an Anasazi shelter cave in Canyonlands, the floor of which was pockmarked with pits dug by “pot hunters” hoping to get rich quick with a pottery find. And – gee, what a surprise! – they had left a big pile of garbage.
— Keep cooking and waste water away from water sources. How many times have I gone down to a pristine lake and seen the remains someone’s macaroni-and-cheese dinner floating in the shallows? Or seen chips of their Ivory soap ground into the shoreline? The correct way to wash dishes in the woods is to dip out the necessary water into a pot or collapsible bucket. Carry it away from the water’s edge for at least 100 feet. Use a minimum amount of biodegradable soap then broadcast the water, so the soap breaks down biologically before it percolates back into the water. The same goes for personal washing; many times I’ve taken a bath out of my Sierra Club cup with my bandana corner rather than dump soap into the lake during a full-body scrub.
— Carry out all garbage. This seems like common sense but is rarely strictly adhered to. Plan menus so there are few leftovers. The old practices of burning or burying leftovers don’t cut it anymore. Few backcountry areas allow fires now, and animals simply dig up buried food, which interferes with their natural nutrition and causes them to become too habituated to people as a food source. Don’t burn aluminum; I’ll find it in the ashes 10 years from now..
— And now we come to that most delicate of subjects, disposal of human waste … When I began backpacking the Sierra in 1970, I thought nothing of dipping my cup into a stream for a cold drink. I’ve only done that one time in the last 20 or so years, at 13,000-plus feet and in desperation. Increased wildlands use by both humans and livestock has caused an epidemic of giardia and fecal parasites, therefore it is imperative that we properly dispose of our bodily wastes. Pack out all toilet paper. If you’re squeamish about putting your used TP in a Baggie then back in your pocket, try adding a few drops of chlorine bleach to the bag before leaving home to reduce its odor. Urine is made up of basically sterile salts and has little impact on vegetation and soils. But feces should be buried in 6-to-8-inch-deep “catholes,” even if it slows down its decomposition. Forest fires have been started by the old practice of burning toilet paper, and buried paper doesn’t decompose properly. Pathogens can survive for over a year, so locate your cathole at least 200 feet from water or campsites. Disguise catholes when done – and don’t just plop a rock on top of your waste in lieu of burying it.
— Finally, a personal pet peeve: Remember that most people visit the wilderness to escape noise. Why would you think that everyone in the campground shares your taste in the music blasting from your car stereo, be it Bach or Bachman Turner Overdrive?
By following these rules and common sense, you can set a good example for others every time you set foot in the back country.
This article was originally published 10/13/1999.
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