So...what does it hurt if more and more folks are visiting the backcountry?
Lets take a semi-quick look at some of the ways that we humans can do damage while we are out there having fun:
Contamination - This form of damage is both easy and hard to understand. The easy part is the trash, garbage, human waste, and other highly visible (or highly smellable!) human byproducts that get left behind. Nobody wants to try to make camp in the middle of a trash dump or on top of some slob's toilet site. A little harder are those contaminations that take longer to show up. Like the soap residue that finally turns sour in the hot sun or the dug-up grease pit that starts to stink even quicker. For me, the hardest contaminations of all to understand were the ones that are the most fleeting. Like the boombox (campfire songs, loud games, etc.) that destroys the night quiet, or the bonfire light that keeps us from seeing the milky way, or the smoke that drifts over from a neighboring camp site to strangle us, or the very presence of too many people being in one place at one time for it to feel wild at all.
Compaction - Compaction is pretty obvious when it gets bad enough. The soil is like a 3-dimensional city...with gazillions of little critters (bugs, worms, microbes, fungi, etc.) that make up its population. These critters do great when the soil is loose enough for all to go about their business. Too many footfalls in the same place slowly pound the soil tighter and tighter, until finally it is compacted into something approaching a block of cement. Fewer and fewer critters can thrive as the soil becomes more and more compact...until finally the soil becomes sterile and supports no growth of any kind. I know that we have all come around a turn of our trail and spotted a camp site. How did we know it was a campsite? One immediate clue, of course, is that big bare spot that identifies the area used the most. That big bare spot is usually a prime example of compacted soil!
Campfires - Keep building a hot fire over and over in the same place and we wind up killing all the critters in the soil the fire heats up. Habit all too often lets us think of the firepit as a dump, filling it with half-burned and half-rotten garbage...and even with the toxic chemicals formed by burning some of our modern man-made materials. Even those ashes, which could be scattered widely to help replace nutrients into the soil, many times just get piled up behind those bushes to slowly change the ph balance of the surrounding soil (how DID great-great grandma make that lye she used to manufacture her homemade soap?). A little less obvious is what happens when we keep stripping the organic materials from an area to use as fuel in our campfires. The organic materials are removed that would usually slowly decay (providing important above-ground critter habitat in the process) and finally turn into the organic soil that supports all those little critters in that subterranean 3-D city. Keep taking the organics away from a popular campsite and we slowly change the area into a sterile desert.
Changing - Sometimes we humans make "brute-force" changes to our natural surroundings. We build things, take things, dig soil penetrations (that later become erosion locations), leave trail markings, hang hot lanterns near tree trunks, leave unnatural foods that disrupt local critter feeding habits, and on and on. We usually do these things for a reason (that is important to us for only a short time) and create results that often last WAY beyond our need.
I like to call the above destruction techniques the "4 C's":
Yeah, I know, it's a little corny...sometimes we have to stretch a bit to make a memory aid. I like to use the "4 C's" for a name because it plays so well against a destruction device that even the youngest Scouts seem to know about nowadays..."C4"...
One of the hardest things for us to realize is that whatever we do is NOT the only time that it ever gets done. We are preceded and followed by LOTS of folks, many of whom are much like us. They are lazy the same way that we are lazy and are uneducated the same way that we are uneducated. If we start to dump our dishwater at the edge of the shelter, there is a pretty doggone good chance that tons of folks have done that on a bunch of yesterdays and will be doing just that on a bunch of tomorrows. The real damage caused by the "4 C's" isn't in any single thing we do...it's in what we add to all the other incremental damages that we all are doing...time after time after time. Up to a certain point, an ecosystem can repair itself during the "off season." Once the accumulated damage goes beyond that, the damage becomes so permanent that often decades of rest are required to get back to normal (if ever!). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the more people we have out there doing the destructive behaviors...the more destruction we get. We can force a reduction in the number of folks who would be doing destructive things (group size restrictions, daily use limits, Rangers behind every tree, etc.)...or we can voluntarily reduce the destructive behaviors that we all just naturally tend to do (LNT is simply the art doing just this)
..or we can slowly destroy our backcountry.
See you at "LNT 4- How?"
- Charlie Thorpe
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