The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 95: Leave No Trace Revisited

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Could you pass a test on wilderness ethics? This week on The WildeBeat; Leave No Trace Revisited.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number ninety five, a remix of number four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Leave No Trace. It's a term that most wilderness visitors have probably heard, but how many actually know what it means? And most people who go into our wilderness areas certainly mean well when it comes to taking care of the places they visit. I was on a hike last week with a backcountry patrol ranger in the Lassen National Forest in Northern California. The ranger just finished telling me about how poorly some users had treated this area. We ran into a group of guys heading into the wilderness. So promising a free CD of our shows, I gave these guys a little test.

STEVE: Can you guys, as a group among you, name the seven Leave No Trace principles?

HIKER 1: We had twenty five, though.

HIKER 2: Leave only footprints.

HIKER 1: If you can carry it in full you can carry it out empty.

HIKER 2: Pack it in, pack it out. Camp something like fifty feet away from water.

HIKER 3: Hey Josh, you go to Outward Bound trips all your life -- help us out.

HIKER 1: Don't just stand there and look cute, help us out.

HIKER 2: Be courteous of other wilderness users.

STEVE: That's a good one.

HIKER 1: Don't bite horses.

HIKER 1: This is going to be a long radio show.

HIKER 2: Pack it in, pack it out.

HIKER 1: We didn't get the free CD, did we?

STEVE: Off mic, the ranger reviewed the seven principles with them. They are: Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire Impacts, Respect Wildlife, and Be Considerate of Other Visitors.

STEVE: But really knowing how to apply these principles involves a little more subtlety. To be good at it, a little education can help. That's why the nonprofit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was formed, back in nineteen ninety four. In July of two thousand five, I interviewed Ben Lawhon, the education director for the Leave No Trace center. In our show number four, Ben turned the tables on me in the interview, and tested me on their principles. I could have answered a few of these a little better.

STEVE: So what do you think the most common thing is that the average person might be doing wrong?

BEN LAWHON: There's really no right or wrong. So 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 tend to shoot for, you know, fifty paces, or a hundred to two hundred feet.

BEN LAWHON: 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. But generally, we recommend that. Another question I have for you, when dealing with human waste, how would you properly 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 LAWHON: 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 into contact with that waste, and then spread any potential bacteria or disease. So that's exactly right, that's a great answer. I've got another question for you: When would 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 LAWHON: Sure. 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: 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 LAWHON: Yeah, a lot of people go that route, 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 use a bandana, 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. It's not about today or tomorrow, but it's the day after tomorrow and the day after that. I've got one last question for you: When storing food in bear country, or for that matter any habitat where you can come into contact with small mammals that can climb, possums, raccoons, 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 LAWHON: 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. And what that essentially does is insure that bears and even smaller mammals that may not be as significant of an animal as a bear, but maybe even more of a nuisance, it keeps them away from those human foods, which helps the animals maintain a normal, natural diet and natural function.

STEVE: So you're suggesting that even if I'm sleeping with my food, it could get raided by some little critter?

BEN LAWHON: 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, in the end. And that may be in the form of relocating that animal, or is may in some cases, especially with bears, that animal will be euthanized. So, we really recommend proper food storage, and that even goes for things like if you're car camping the night before you're heading out for a large trip. Making sure your food is in hard sided coolers of in a vehicle where either bears or smaller mammals can't get in contact with it.

STEVE: So I guess I'll have to rethink my food storage a little bit...

BEN LAWHON: Just something to think about.

STEVE: The Leave No Trace organization offers hundreds of training classes around the country, ranging from two hour introductions to week-long master classes. They have partnerships with parks, equipment manufacturers, commercial outfitters, major media outlets, and small non-profit organizations like ours. They get their message out through hundreds of partner organizations.

BEN LAWHON: Through our network of volunteer educators and our partners, we are utilizing this training structure to really reach the masses with this message.

STEVE: So do you feel like the message is being heard?

BEN LAWHON: 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 visitation alone, it's approaching three hundred million visitors a year. So we're just scratching the surface.

STEVE: Well Ben, I'd like to thank you for joining me on the show.

BEN LAWHON: Well thanks for having us. And I certainly do appreciate the opportunity to talk to your listeners, and hope everyone remembers that Leave No Trace is not right or wrong, or black and white, it's just thinking about ways to minimize those impacts so that we leave things as good or better than we found them.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your thoughts about the Leave No Trace principles, about your experiences with people who set good or bad examples in wilderness ethics, and any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373, or send e-mail to comments at wildebeat dot net. You can find a link to the Leave No Trace center, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please help us make future editions of this free service; go to our web site, click on our support link, and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number ninety five. Thank you for listening.

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STEVE: Next time, a gentle volcano.

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