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Leave-A-Trace page (editorial)


I picked up the local United States Forest Service map.  The admonition to Leave-No-Trace (LNT) was on the first fold.  The Service encourages visitors to camp 200 feet from lakes or streams.  “For cooking and warmth, camp stoves are preferable...” 


Motorized recreationists are asked to Tread Lightly rather than Leave-No-Trace.


I had a booth at an outdoor show.  A small army of BLM and Forest Service employees spent a day and a half establishing an extensive information display nearby.  The primary topic: campfire.  The agencies had multiple displays encouraging the use of stoves, fire pans, fire blankets, requests to carry out ash, replant sod, disperse fire rings and so on.  Later, I was visiting the adjacent National Forest.  A group of campers with trucks and trailers were camping less than twenty feet from a beautiful river.  Adults were sitting around a large fire while their children ran around on motorcycles in a marshy area.  A couple of US Forest Service trucks passed with the occupants waving cheerfully to the campers. 


After the long weekend, I visited another informal camp area on the same river and found dirty diapers, old tires, clothing, a double bed and mattress, sofa, carpet, broken toys.  I filled the back of a pickup truck twice and made trips to the nearest landfill.


I took a summer long canoe trip from the Canadian Rocky Mountains to Hudson Bay and camped at several traditional Indian campsites.  None of them were 200 feet from a lake or river.  Natives have been camping directly on the shores of lakes and rivers for thousands of years.  Somehow, the continent survived until white folks got here. 


I was hiking in the beautiful granite high country of California, stopped near an exquisite lake and noticed that the large flat stone in front of me had been a camping spot for hikers the night before.  They had done a consummate job of Leaving-No-Trace.  I found cut fir boughs, used to sweep the entire area, back in the brush.  On close inspection, it was clear significant damage had been inflicted on the lichens living on the large flat stone employed to minimize the appearance of use.


Published over a half century ago, A Sand County Almanac asked Americans to adopt a national conservation ethic.  Sadly, we are further away from that goal today than ever before. 


All recreation changes the environment.  Leaving-No-Trace isn’t a realistic goal.  The outdoor use ethic, whether front country or backcountry, should be called the Leave-A-Trace campaign (as opposed to leaving a mess).


Several years ago, I read an article by a hiker encouraging backpackers to take refuge in a tent in the evening and read a book rather than sit around an environmentally destructive campfire.  Let’s face it, that kind of advice is an invitation to stay home.  Your choice, relax in the comfort of your EZlounger with an electric bulb illuminating your page or huddle up in a tent reading by flashlight or miniature lantern.


My favorite anti-campfire article was by a river runner who insisted campfires are always evil and out of place.  He related how he “had to” get down on his hands and knees with tweezers and pick up bits of charcoal from his camping beach.  The poor city slicker apparently didn’t realize fire is a natural part of the environment he was in and every beach along the river does have and has had charcoal in it centuries before a white person ever set foot in the watershed.


In their 1979 text, Backwoods Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman wrote, “In making the transition to the compact, portable gas stove, we’ve found we don’t really miss that old campfire - in fact, we wouldn’t want one now.  We prefer to get along with no smoke in our eyes, no soot on our pots, no scouring the forest for dead wood, no set-up and break-down time, no nighttime beacon of blazing light that makes the stars hard to see and scares off animal life.”


It is true modern gadgets can minimize camping chores.  Of course, one can minimize camping chores completely by staying home or “camping” at a resort or in an RV - exactly what outdoor recreation data tells us more and more Americans are doing.  Part of the charm of camping is camp chores.  Story telling and humor were birthed around a campfire.  Many American conservation campaigns were launched around the campfire.  Campfires were security in an era when things that went bump in the night might eat you and in several areas that is becoming true again.  Backwoods Ethics is, unfortunately, too much an essay against backcountry camping and the idea of wildness.


Throughout most of North America periodic wildfire is natural.  Vigorous fire suppression has substantially altered the environment.  There is more dead and down material in forest environments today than ever before. The buildup of fuels constitutes a major threat to watersheds, fish and wildlife.  People who think campfires are hostile to the environment are mostly wrong and ignorant. 




The Wilderness Act identifies three essential criteria for formal Wilderness classification: size, substantial naturalness (substantial, not pristine naturalness) and the ability of the land to provide solitude and, or, primitive and unconfined recreation.  When land management agencies, special interest groups, outdoor gear promoters, writers and armchair pundits tell you to never go into the wilderness alone and take modern gear (such as stoves) to facilitate Leaving-No-Trace, they are encouraging you to violate the spirit of the Wilderness Act. 


Primitive recreation isn’t about leaving only footprints, taking only pictures and killing only time.  Primitive recreation is precisely about catching a wild trout and frying it over an open campfire, cooking a grouse on a spit, spending your evening around a magical and spiritual campfire like thousands of generations of wilderness users before you.  Primitive recreation is not about heating a little water over a mechanical stove and pouring it into a foil bag of instant processed goop, then heading off to your plastic tent to huddle up with a book illuminated by your headlamp.


The ability to build a campfire and cook real food over it is the definition of real camping and the essence of woodcraft.    


For thousands of generations humans were hunters and gathers, and campfire builders.  Hostility toward these elemental human characteristics makes no more sense than hostility toward language and our tool using opposable thumbs. 


Throughout much of the West camping opportunities are limited.  It is a good idea to get away from water and hunt up your own isolated spot off the beaten track.  However, in many canyons and steep mountainous country the only option is a flat near a river, stream or lake.  You are not going to destroy the environment by putting your sleeping bag on the ground.  Did you feel guilty driving to the trailhead?  Virtually every facet of your life involves greater environmental impact than camping near a river or lake. 


There is a great deal of good camping advice from the Leave No Trace organization.  Familiarize yourself with it and use as appropriate.  The popularity of Leave-No-Trace, though, is largely related to the emphasis placed on aesthetics rather than real environmental impacts.  You don’t have to have qualifications to chime in on aesthetics, so people with no environmental education or training have perpetrated and promoted mythology.  At the extreme, Leave-No-Trace posits a world where man and nature never meet.  Some LNT extremists are anti-hunting and fishing and discourage even walking or sleeping on the natural earth.  They would have you feel guilty if you step off the constructed trail, pick a huckleberry or sleep on the ground rather than in a hammock.  That is the problem with the title LEAVE NO TRACE, the faithful take it literally and see anyone not endeavoring to leave NO trace as living in sin.


Do federal land management agencies walk their talk?  You visit a half dozen campgrounds on a national forest and they are all immediately adjacent to a lake, stream or river and then the agency tells you not to camp within 200 feet of water. Who would take that kind of educational advice seriously?  You note the forest road you are driving along was constructed by bulldozing thousands of tons of fill into the adjacent river or stream.  If government doesn’t respect watershed conservation how can they expect it of the public?


For the most part, North Americans consume more energy, more minerals and other raw materials than previous generations.  We produce more waste.  There is more sprawl today than thirty years ago.  The politicians we vote for have worse environmental voting records than the politicians our parents and grandparents supported.  Americans want bigger and more vehicles, straighter highways for faster speeds, bigger homes; we promote growth and development in every nook and cranny of the nation.  The American lifestyle is the antithesis of the Leave-No-Trace concept. 


What we need today is the same thing we needed in 1949.  It makes no sense to have a mostly ignored LNT program for campers, a largely ignored Tread Lightly campaign for motorized recreationists and a tread heavily national ethos most people have taken to heart.

Don Tryon,  September 2007, revised January 2014, January 2018, February 2020.


Purcell Trench;  P.O. Box 7;  Addy, WA 99101     509-675-1413     sales@purcelltrench.com