Path of Destruction

The Limits of "Leave No Trace"

Few hikers are tougher on wilderness than the Escondido Cougars high school football team. Before starting their 1999 fall season, 30 Cougars tackled the Sierra Nevada wilderness for pre-season bonding. The San Diego-county team pitched tents for a week at Deer Lakes, an idyllic trio of lakes in the John Muir wilderness. They treated the wilderness like their locker room. When the Cougars headed home, they left behind everything from water bottles to sweat pants.

It’s no wonder George Nickas, director of the Montana-based Wilderness Watch, worries that “recreation is the single greatest threat to wilderness.” Wilderness advocates fear that a growing number of backpackers will soon turn the federal wilderness system into little more than an oversized playground. Scott Silver, at Oregon-based WildWilderness, calls it “industrial-strength recreation.”

Heavy Feet

Recreation has long posed a threat to wilderness. In 1974, 10 years after Congress passed the Wilderness Act, educator Paul Petzoldt wrote, “Wilderness regions are not being threatened by mining, timbering or ranching interests; the destruction is coming from those very people who fought so gallantly to get the act passed.” In response, environmentally conscious backpackers devised minimal-impact camping techniques. By limiting campsites, minimizing litter, and avoiding campfires, it was hoped a finite wilderness system could accommodate an ever-growing numbers of visitors.

This wilderness ethic received official sanction in 1991. Leave No Trace (LNT), supported by the federal land agencies, outdoor industry and many environmentalists, started advertising minimal-impact ethics to backpackers nationwide. Drawing on scientific research, LNT set forth concise guidelines for wilderness-friendly backpacking. Scott Reid, an LNT official, explains, “LNT provides information and skill sets to help people minimize their impact.”

Many backpackers exhibit a near-religious devotion to the LNT principles. Some forgo toilet paper and drink their dishwater in an effort to Leave No Trace. Rebecca Oreskes, who works in the White Mountain National Forest, says her district “has been doing certain aspects of Leave No Trace for years, and it has been very successful.”

But no matter how dutiful the Leave No Trace backpacker, the ecology of the nation’s wilderness areas remains at risk. Kathleen Walker, who works at the Mount Hood National Forest, explains, “We have to acknowledge, at some point, that we can’t change peoples’ behavior.” Even the most conscientious backpackers remain determined to camp too close to scenic lakes and streams.

The Bottom Line

With the outdoor industry ringing up $15 billion in sales last year, economics are increasingly impinging on the wilderness ideal. Locally, industry has already interfered with wilderness management to prevent just this. In the Pacific Northwest, wilderness advocates accuse one outdoor outfitter of helping overturn stringent Forest Service limits on rock-bolting and solitude standards. In Idaho, outfitters fought aggressively against limits on Salmon River raft trips. At the national level, wilderness advocates believe LNT works the same way, keeping the doors to wilderness wide open.

Although LNT is a non-profit organization, it has a long list of corporate ties, including the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. WildWilderness’ Silver accuses LNT of being “industry’s public relations campaign.” LNT counts on gear companies for financial support and assistance in spreading the minimal-impact message. For all LNT’s emphasis on protecting the wilderness, Reid explains, “LNT refuses to weigh in on any access issues.”

Wilderness advocates see limited access as key to its future. Already, weekend hikers number in the hundreds at popular sites such as Old Rag in Virginia or Mount Hood in Oregon. No matter how ecologically conscious these hikers, they will soon overrun wilderness in sheer numbers. Unfortunately, regulating recreation may prove far more difficult than regulating logging, mining or grazing.

Minimizing Impact

The most ardent wilderness advocates might ask you to reconsider a trip to the wilderness. For those of us not ready to give up our backpacking trips, there are steps we can take to make our wilderness trips as environmentally friendly as possible: Minimize crowding: keep groups small and quiet; travel in the off-season or visit less-popular areas. Minimize physical impact: follow the Leave No Trace principles for wilderness travel as carefully as possible. Minimize consumption: cut down on resource-intensive outdoor products, such as petroleum-based fabrics, plastics and fuels.

In the coming year, strict rules on wilderness recreation may be proposed for some of the nation’s most visited areas. Look for Forest Service announcements in California, Montana, Washington and New Hampshire. If protecting wilderness requires limiting public access, the public’s feedback will be vital to the Forest Service’s decision-making process. And the Escondido Cougars may have to mend their ways.

JAMES MORTON TURNER is a graduate student at Princeton University.