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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

Preventing Use From Becoming Abuse

Over a recent holiday weekend, I headed to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in north central Colorado, just below the Wyoming border. An encounter in the backcountry with one of the nation's official protectors of wilderness areas provoked me to reconsider a centuries-old question: When does the use of natural environments become abuse?

Campfire Bans and Jokes: Tinder for a Conflagration

For me, one of the highlights of a trip to the backcountry is the nightly campfire, as well as the rituals that accompany it, from the patient gathering of the proper kinds of firewood to the delicate process of successfully starting and maintaining the fire. One of the hottest and driest summers on record in Colorado, however, produced a cloud of doubt over our small party of backpackers about whether we would be able to build a campfire during our excursion.

On the first day of the trip, about halfway to the base of Red Dirt Pass, the site of our camp for the weekend, we neared Gilpin Creek Lake. An eighth of a mile from the lake, we spotted two forest rangers 25 feet up the trail, busying themselves around Gilpin Creek. As we approached, it became apparent that they were removing the remains of a footbridge shoddily constructed across the creek, and that we would have to walk through the creek to get to the other side.

In preparation for the crossing, we removed our sweat-soaked boots and socks, and struck up a conversation with the rangers. Shortly into our discussion with Smokey the Bear's lieutenants, a fellow backpacker broached the topic of campfires. One of the rangers informed us that campfires were absolutely prohibited given the weather conditions. Fair enough, I thought. Well, the inquisitor in our party was curious about the specifics of the policy, and jokingly needled the ranger about the prohibition.

As we quickly found out, campfire bans and jokes do not mix with certain forest rangers. Within a matter of minutes, Smokey's right hand man had stuffed the backcountry regulations into our hands, and put us on notice that he would be enforcing a zero tolerance policy with our group. Essentially, one violation of the regulations, no matter how minor, would lead to the maximum fine and, as I inferred from his tone, a lifetime prohibition from the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. It seemed that our mischievous inquiry violated some mysterious ranger code and, from his perspective, was equal to disrespect, and therefore abuse, of the area.

The Fundamentals of Wilderness Ethics

Our guardian of the forest's swift and severe reaction to our playful questioning bothered me for the rest of the trip, which we thankfully survived without incurring any fines or prohibitions. At the minimum, though, the encounter did provoke me to further ponder the distinction between using and abusing natural environments. Whether in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Rocky Mountains of Montana or the Salmon Mountains of California, when does use become abuse?

On an individual basis, any person schooled in the fundamentals of wilderness ethics knows the proper kinds of behavior in the backcountry. According to Leave No Trace, Inc., a non-profit educational corporation authorized by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the following principles are recommended as a guide to minimizing the impact of backcountry visits:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces
  • Pack It In, Pack It Out
  • Properly Dispose of What You Can't Pack Out
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize use and impact from fires

Given that nothing in our behavior in front of the ranger contradicted these principles, I surmised that the embittered ranger's reaction was less to our individual actions and more to a greater force. Maybe the ever increasing number of people who flee to the mountains on the weekends, combined with occasionally less than respectful behavior toward the environment, are becoming too much for him and his ilk? Maybe we were the proverbial straws that broke this particular camel's back on a weekend of intensely heavy use of the wilderness area?

With that in mind, my thinking about the distinction between using and abusing natural environments shifted from individual behavior to group usage. While it is important for users of the backcountry to know and follow the fundamentals of wilderness ethics, perhaps the more important and difficult issue is the overuse, and possible abuse, of natural environments by society as a whole. Over the long term, are we asking more from the land than it can give?

Recreating the Fundamentals of Wilderness Ethics

The long-range consequences of society's increasing use of natural environments, especially for recreational activities, bring to mind an account by philosopher Bertrand Russell. Though Russell was describing London in 1930, his words also accurately portray a typical day on many of Colorado's roadways heading into the mountains in 2000:

On a main road at the week-end, you will see men and women, all comfortably off, and some very rich, engaged in the pursuit of pleasure. This pursuit is conducted by all at a uniform pace, that of the slowest car in the procession; it is impossible to see the road for the cars, or the scenery since looking aside would cause an accident; all the occupants of all the cars are absorbed in the desire to pass other cars, which they cannot do on account of the crowd.

Given this situation, and the likelihood that it will only intensify in the coming years, is even the strictest adherence to the fundamentals of wilderness ethics, as now conceived, enough to preserve the essence of the mountains? Instead, perhaps we must recognize our abusive collective behavior and make some fundamental changes in how we treat these vital resources, similar to how we altered our treatment of this land's great waterways.

In fact, a major foray into recreating the fundamentals of wilderness ethics is currently underway in Colorado. As the first salvo in a controversial battle to redefine the line between using and abusing natural environments, the U.S. Forest Service has released its Proposed Revised Land and Resource Management Plan for the White River National Forest. This document, which has been hailed as courageous, revolutionary and a giant step forward, seeks to reassert loyalty to the land itself by embracing the principle that higher priority be given to physical and biological resources than to human uses of the forest.

More specifically, the plan trims and restricts some of the more abusive recreational activities in mountainous regions, including skiing, snowmobiling and mountain biking. Although these users and their organizational apologists have predictably criticized the plan, the Forest Service's efforts have also forged some unlikely alliances in the name of protecting natural environments, including loggers and environmentalists. Given the strong desires of those who wish to maintain the status quo, however, the plan faces an uphill battle before being adopted.

Still, it is an encouraging development, and thankfully recognizes that the time has come to recreate the fundamentals of wilderness ethics to account for the increasing number of recreational users of mountainous regions. More importantly, it represents a significant effort to ensure that the sum of individual use of natural environments does not equate to group abuse, an increasingly likely outcome with each passing holiday weekend.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Leave No Trace

Proposed Revised Land and Resource Management Plan

"Stop - A national forest tries to rein in recreation," High Country News, January 17, 2000


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