Poop Problems and Bad Bear Hangs: Is Leave No Trace Working?

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The roots of Leave No Trace, a set of principles designed to promote conservation of land and water resources impacted by outdoor recreation, goes back more than half a century, and the nonprofit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was incorporated in 1994.

Yet for all those years of effort, a startlingly high number of outdoor recreationalists know little or nothing about Leave No Trace.

“Through our own research, where we have landed in terms is that about nine out of 10 (outdoor recreationalists) are uninformed or underinformed about Leave No Trace,” says Ben Lawhon, education director for the center.

leave no trace appalachian trail zach davis

Photo via Zach Davis

Meanwhile, a steadily increasing number of recreationalists has put increasing pressure on the center—as well as its 650 partners, including government agencies, nonprofits, colleges and communities—to help millions of users learn the principles of good stewardship.

“The biggest challenge we have is that visitation to all public lands continues to increase, the goalposts keep moving. What might have been a success 20 years ago is not the same metric of success in 2019,” Lawhon says.

Celebrating Success

Sunrise over the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. It wouldn’t be fair to only show photos of Leave No Trace problems. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Despite those concerns, Leave No Trace advocates, including Lawhon, say there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

“I would say overall, I’m realistically encouraged,” says Chloë de Camara, trail education specialist for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, who oversees the organization’s education and outreach efforts in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

“We feel that things have improved significantly,” says Scott Wilkinson, director of communications and marketing for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, who in July spent two weeks on the trail. “I met a lot of hikers, and they all seemed to be very conscientious. Several mentioned Leave No Trace to me—when they mention it to you, you know you are getting some penetration.”

“Long-distance hikers are so goal-focused… they don’t worry about what happens to Siler Bald, a North Carolina mountain on the AT. They’re thinking about Katahdin.”

What’s more, agencies and trail organizations continue to innovate in their efforts to show as many long-distance hikers and other users that practicing Leave No Trace is all about protecting the land they love.

“Leave No Trace is encouraging us to take note of every decision we make. It’s not boring; it can be fun. It’s just a set of empowering skills to help people discover how to minimize their impact out there,” de Camara says.

The Boulder, Colorado-based Leave No Trace Center is careful to say that the principles are not static, describing them as an “easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.” However, the principles are often listed as:

  • Plan ahead and prepare.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find.
  • Minimize campfire impacts.
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Myriad Concerns

bear hang bear bag

A poorly done bear-bag hang may be worse than no hang at all, says Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Creative Commons photo.

When it comes to long trails, advocates and land managers cite myriad areas of concern indicating that many hikers are not adhering to the principles. But a few stand out.

Improper disposal of human waste and toilet paper continue to be a problem. “We need a lot of honest talk about toilet paper and uncovered feces and refer to a need for hikers to be ‘potty-trained,’” Wilkinson says.

“Improper human-waste management, people not digging catholes,” de Camara immediately says when asked to name areas of concern. “It’s unsightly, and I don’t know if you’ve ever stepped in human feces but it’s demoralizing. Really gross. It also affects the natural ecosystem and the quality of water sources. It’s a hazard to other hikers.”

Failure to secure food is another oft-cited problem. If hikers do not properly hang bear bags or use bear-resistant containers, wildlife can become habituated to human food, resulting in everything from emboldened mice in shelters to the destruction of “problem” bears. Hardened bear canisters are now required on most of the PCT. A canister is required on only a few miles of the AT, but the ATC strongly recommends that hikers protect their food with a container on Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s “certified products list.”

“A poor bear-hang, in my mind, is almost worse than no hang at all,” says Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the ATC. “Bears become habituated to look for them, and that’s what has caused our biggest problems.”

Burning Problem

campfire leave no trace

Many hikers love a good fire, but forget to remove signs of it when finished. Creative Commons photo.

Campfires continue to be a concern, as hikers strip low-hanging branches from trees and gather up fallen twigs, sticks, and timber around shelters or campsites. Fire rings at popular overnight sites on long trails also have a tendency to expand and proliferate.

“You can have a fire and leave relatively little impact,” says Marian Orlousky, director of science and stewardship for the ATC in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. With the exception of “official” rings at shelters, “if you are going to have one, keep it small, take it apart at the end, and make sure no one knows it was there.”

Orlousky partly blames the “Instagram effect” for another problem: hikers going off-trail to capture that perfect selfie or photo op, particularly in sensitive alpine areas such as the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

Among the other problems are dog waste, garbage, and micro-trash. On the AT, throwing garbage, food, clothing and other inappropriate items into shelter privies is a continuing issue.

“I’ve cleaned over 100 privies and had to pack out baby wipes, tampons, food waste, soiled underwear, you name it,” de Camara says. “It’s not fun.”

Inexperience and Unreliable Sources

chest nut knob appalachian trail burke's garden

Looking out over Burke’s Garden from Chestnut Knob Shelter, Virginia. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Given the decades-long effort to educate hikers about Leave No Trace, why do so many remain unaware? The most difficult obstacle is simply finding a way to reach hikers, particularly neophytes.

“It’s pretty obvious anecdotally that with… Leave No Trace issues, it’s often due to people who just don’t have the experience and time in the outdoors,” says Wilkinson of the PCTA. “With the increasing popularity of all trails… we’re seeing a lot more people on trail who have never backpacked in their lives.”

Just 15 or 20 years ago, most aspiring long-trail hikers sought information from organizations like the ATC and PCTA. Now there are countless avenues of information, not all of it reliable and much of it ignorant of or silent about Leave No Trace.

“Back in the day, you’d write a letter (to the ATC) in Harpers Ferry, and they’d send you some information, right from the source,” says the Leave No Trace center’s Lawhon, who worked for the ATC before the advent of the internet. “Now it might be a blog, YouTube, a friend. There’s very little consistency.”

While long-distance hikers often learn as they go, becoming more attuned to their impact on the trail and ecosystem, Lawhon worries that many lose sight of protecting resources.

“Long-distance hikers are so goal-focused, and so transient, that they don’t worry about what happens to Siler Bald,” a North Carolina mountain on the AT, he says. “They’re thinking about Katahdin.”

The sheer stress of marching long miles in difficult conditions can make hikers lose sight of the bigger picture. “It’s pouring rain at night, you’re stuck in Gooch Gap Shelter” on the Georgia AT, Lawhon says. “You’re not going to go dig a cathole. You’re going to go right behind the shelter.”

Leave No Trace is not ‘The Man’

chloe de camara appalachian trail ridge runner leave no trace

Chloë de Camara, Trail Education Specialist and long-time ridge-runner for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Photo via Chloë de Camara.

The ATC’s de Camara believes that many long-trail hikers, particularly beginners, may drop the ball on some aspects of Leave No Trace out of fear or embarrassment over their lack of skills. She includes herself in that category.

“On my thru hike (of the AT), I was trying to hone my skill on throwing a bear line by myself. Often, I either didn’t do it or made some really poor decisions,” she says. “The worst thing that ever happened to me was that nothing ever happened to me, and I continued to store my food improperly.”

But, she says, “No one is born a backpacker. The question is, how can we encourage people to learn those skills?”

And then there are the recalcitrant few who see Leave No Trace as somehow impinging on their freedom or hiking experience.

“A few people, a minority, think of us as ‘The Man,’ some faceless corporate entity wagging a finger at hikers,” says the PCTA’s Wilkinson. “We definitely don’t want to be that, and we aren’t that. But some people are going to be rebels no matter what, trolling on Facebook, flipping the bird and saying, ‘Hey, man, this is a free country.’”

“Leave No Trace,” de Camara says, “isn’t The Man. We’re not trying to bring anybody down.”

Nature’s Authority

trail trash creative commons

Volunteers, maintainers and others find all kinds of refuse on trails. The basic rule is, pack it in, pack it out, no matter what it is. Creative Commons photo.

Given increasing hiker numbers, advocacy organizations continue to innovate in their approaches to conveying the importance of Leave No Trace, not just to the ecosystem and wildlife, but hikers and the trails themselves.

One key strategy in recent years is quietly emphasizing the “authority of the resource.” Rather than telling hikers what to do, this strategy explores how their decisions can impact the ecosystem and other trail users’ experience.

“If you put it all in a neutral context, explaining that these are the impacts of what’s happening, it takes that human element out of it,” Wilkinson says. “The idea is to be educational, not confrontational, and nature has its own authority.”

For example, instead of simply telling hikers to dig a proper cathole, educators might have a conversation about the impacts of improperly disposed-of human waste, from contamination of downstream water sources to illness among other hikers.

The approach, embraced by many federal land-management agencies, can be nuanced. For example, turning 90 degrees and looking out across the land while talking to hikers can lessen the sense that they are being lectured. The idea is to encourage hikers to examine their own actions, rather than making them feeling that they are following a rule.

“Ask yourself, what do you feel comfortable with? Is that necessary? What is the actual consequence of that? That’s going to go a lot farther than me saying, ‘Um, put rubber tips on your trekking poles,” de Camara says.

Future Conservation Leaders

ice age trail wisconsin

A bluff on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. Photo via.

Education is key, and organizations continue to try new approaches to reaching current and future hikers. The Ice Age Trail Alliance, which supports and protects the 1,000-mile National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin, recently won a National Park Foundation grant to engage 10,000 Wisconsin fourth graders about Leave No Trace principles.

“We tell stories, explain what a thru-hiker is,” says Amy Lord, outreach and education manager for the alliance. “Hands go up, ‘Where do they sleep? Where do they eat? Where do they go to the bathroom?’ and we talk to them about it.”

Lord, who says the IAT is currently “in a nice sweet spot, seeing increasing use, but not too much overuse or impact,” says the school program—which includes actual time on trail—sometimes focuses on easily understandable pieces of Leave No Trace ethics.

“One simple thing is when kids ask if they can pick up sticks, feathers, leaves, have walking sticks,” she says. “Our answer is, ‘We leave those things where they are, so other hikers can enjoy them, too.’ We see this as a really good opportunity to engage the next generation of conservation leaders.”

New Avenues

Southern terminus, Pacific Crest Trail. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Southern terminus, Pacific Crest Trail. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

The ATC has vigorously embraced education. It is one of a handful of organizations authorized by the Leave No Trace Center to teach master educator courses, or “training the trainers,” as Potteiger says. Alone among the “big-trail” advocacy organizations, the ATC spends considerable resources to hire “ridge runners” and “summit stewards” to engage hikers and answer questions, with an emphasis on Leave No Trace.

The organization has had considerable success with its voluntary hiker registration program, through which it can help regulate crowds at Springer Mountain, the southern terminus from which three-quarters of AT thru-hikers embark. The registration program includes a 15-minute Start Smart program at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia, a joint effort of the ATC and Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.

“We gave 695 Start Smart presentations to hikers (in 2019), reaching more than 2,000 people we never reached before,” de Camara says. The ATC has also moved away from purely Leave No Trace workshops and toward hiker-education classes and overnight training programs.

“Leave No Trace (courses) often had a hard time attracting attendees, but we often can’t meet the demand for how-to-hike courses,” Potteiger says. “Integrating Leave No Trace is an organic part of those courses.”

On the West Coast, the PCTA has recently stepped up its on-trail education efforts, hiring full-time hosts at the trail’s southern terminus near Campo, California. Hosts work every day, starting at 5am, from April through early June, answering questions and checking permits.

“They talk Leave No Trace and have laminated cards to hand out to hikers,” Wilkinson says. “It’s been really successful, and hikers tell us how helpful it’s been to talk to these people.”

The Little Things

bear butte prayer bundles centennial trail

Prayer bundles left by Native American people on Bear Butte, northern terminus of the Centennial Trail in South Dakota. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

Advocacy organizations are also trying smaller-bore tactics to address specific issues. To encourage PCT hikers to pack out their toilet paper, for example, the PCTA provides plastic bags branded with the organization’s logo.

“It’s the most bombproof solution to ‘toilet-paper blossoms,’” Wilkinson says. “It’s got the logo on it, so it’s opaque.”

The ATC’s Orlousky has come up with the idea of a “Deuce of Spades” trowel for digging catholes.

“Instead of a plastic hang tag, we’d print Leave No Trace (principles) on one side of a light aluminum trowel,” she says. “It hasn’t taken yet, but I keep pushing it.”

And sometimes, education is personal. De Camara says small things, such as packing out used toilet paper, may at first strike hikers as untenable or disgusting. But once practiced, they can quickly become second nature. For example, she uses a very small amount of toothpaste (or none), then swallows it, and drinks the “gray water” from cleaning cookware and utensils.

“What seems like not a big deal to me, can seem revolting to them,” De Camara says. “I make it as non-dramatic a conversation as possible, rather than make it ‘ewww’-worthy, like it’s just part of our daily grind while we’re out there.”

A Clear Choice

Despite signs of progress, concerns about combined impacts of growing use, limited resources and lack of public awareness, Leave No Trace advocates say they remain hopeful.

“How viable is Leave No Trace? Don’t even ask that question,” says the ATC’s Orlousky. “We don’t have a choice. We have to remain optimistic. We have to make sure everyone is following at least some Leave No Trace practices and instilling them in as many people as we can.”

Of course, in reality, there are other choices – but chances are, they wouldn’t be very appealing to hikers.

“Ultimately,” Potteiger says, “if people don’t follow Leave No Trace, the consequences are harming the resource and making the experience negative for others. And usually when that happens, it leads to regulations, which nobody likes.”

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