The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
The WildeBeat edition 4: Leaving No Trace
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Do you make your mark on the wilderness? Find out next, as we take an outdoor ethics test, on the Wildebeat.
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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.
This is program number four.
I'm Steve Sergeant.
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STEVE SERGEANT: Every trip we take into a wilderness area changes the place in some way. Just be being there, we disturb the wildlife, vegetation, water, and land. But is there a way we can minimize our impacts?
I'm talking with Ben Lawhon, the education director of the Leave No Trace Center. Ben, welcome to The WildeBeat.
BEN: Thank you for having me.
STEVE: What is the Leave No Trace Center, and how did it get started?
BEN: The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a non-profit organization. We're based in Boulder Colorado, with a mission to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation.
In the seventies and eighties there was a significant increase in outdoor recreation in this country. The wilderness act passed in nineteen sixty four, and land managers began to notice significant increases in recreation-related impacts: Fire rings, trash, improperly disposed-of human waste, wildlife getting into human food, and those sorts of things. And they wanted a very proactive way to reach out to these recreationists through more of a humanistic approach, as opposed to regulation.
Our organization was formed in nineteen ninety four, and we have been functioning for the last ten years trying to teach people how enjoy all natural lands, and leave them as good or better than they found them.
STEVE: So do you feel like the message is being heard?
BEN: It is! By our best estimates we reach about ten million people a year with the leave no trace message, which sounds like a large number, but when you look at national park visitiation alone, it's approaching three hundred million visitors a year. So we're just scratching the surface.
STEVE: So what do you think the most common thing is that the average person might be doing wrong?
BEN: There's really no right or wrong. For example, how far would you think that you should camp away from water sources?
STEVE: Well, you know sometimes it's hard in canyons — I, you know, fifty paces, or a hundred to two hundred feet.
BEN: There you go, that's the correct answer. We generally recommend two hundred feet away from rivers, lakes, or streams. When possible, of course. Some environments don't lend themselves to being that far, and some environments land managers have stipulated that the campsites are right next to water and you're required to camp in those sites.
Another question I have for you, when dealing with human waste, how would you proper dispose of human waste — in a forested environment, for example?
STEVE: Well forested environments are probably some of the easiest environments, because you know I tend to try to find material that is already rotting/decomposing, wood is most common or really dark earth, and try to dig as far as I can. Usually the shovel I carry is about six inches long, so I try to get to about that depth.
BEN: Exactly, that's again what we recommend is digging a what we call a cat hole, six to eight inches deep, and usually again two hundred feet from water when possible. And what the advantage of using the cat hole is that it accomplishes four objectives. Number one it helps to maximize the decomposition rate, it helps to minimize the chances of any water pollution, it helps to minimize the aesthetic impacts. I mean someone seeing the waste, which is an unpleasant thing to come upon. And it also minimizes the chances that any animal, or insect, or even another person could come in to contact with the waste, and then spead any potential bacteria or disease.
I've got another question for you: When you you say would be the best time to visit a wilderness area? On a busy weekend, you know Labor Day or Memorial Day, or should you shoot for those times that are maybe the middle of the week, if possible, or shoulder seasons?
STEVE: Sometimes I do stay home on the big holiday weekends because the wilderness experience for me is not a social experience with lots of strangers and big crowds.
BEN: And we'd certainly encourage folks to do the same, just simply for that reason. And part of that is matching up your trip with the type of experience you're looking for to insure that you get that experience. And if you think that an area will be really crowded one weekend, it's you know getting out the maps, making a couple of phone calls, jumping on the internet, and finding a location that may be a little more off the beaten path, where you could have that kind of really true wilderness type experience.
Got another question for you: What should you do after you've done your dishes after dinner, and you've got some little food particles in the dish water? What would you do with those?
STEVE: This is probably going to freak out some of the listeners, but I tend to make tea out of the wash water. I tend not to use soap because I figure the pot's going to be boiled again so that'll sterilize it.
BEN: Yeah, particularly a lot of long-distance hikers go that route. But in the event that you're not quite that hardy, one thing that we recommend is straining your dish water and using either a little mesh kitchen strainer; you can take a ziploc-type baggie and poke a hole in one of the corners and pour your water through that, and you're essentially catching those smaller food particles that would otherwise be potentially food for wildlife. Some people may think, "oh a few crumbs won't hurt," but the thing with Leave No Trace — with everything Leave No Trace, is that we're concerned with the cumulative effects of millions of people doing the same thing over and over and over again. And that's what we really stress to folks.
I've got one last question for you: In bear country, or for that matter any habitat where you can come into contact with small mammals that can climb, possums, raccons, marmots for example, how would you store your food?
STEVE: You know if it's regulated that we carry a canister — if it's serious bear country — I do that. But once I get out of those territories I just tend to sleep with my food.
BEN: Yeah a lot of folks I think tend to do that. And if you're not in bear country it's something to really maybe put some thought into with respect to what other kinds of critters are out there. What we typically recommend as far as food storage is hanging your food so it hangs twelve feet off the ground and six feet out from the trunk of the tree or the nearest branch.
STEVE: Even if I'm sleeping with my food, it could get raided by some little critter?
BEN: Potentially. What tends to happen to animals when they come into contact with human food, is they realize pretty quickly that human food tastes pretty good. When they find those they become habituated to humans, which means that they sometimes will actively seek out human foods, and nine times out of ten, the animals loose.
STEVE: So I guess I'll have to rethink my food storage a little bit...
BEN: Just something to think about.
STEVE: Well Ben, I'd like to thank you for joining me on the show. I wish you the best of luck in spreading the word of the Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.
BEN: Well thanks for having us. And I certainly do appeciate the opportunity to talk to your listeners, and hope everyone remembers that Leave No Trace is just thinking about ways to minimize those impacts so that we leave things as good or better than we found them.
STEVE: Ben Lawhon is the education director at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Read more about them on the web, at L-N-T dot O-R-G. They're teaching us how to tread lightly, on The WildeBeat.
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Next time — find out about pristine wild places in California that aren't protected as wilderness.
The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Future editions of The Wildebeat depend on your contributions, both for funding and for content. Please see our website for details.
This has been The Wildebeat, program number four. Thank you for listening.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.