Our Wild Spaces are Being “Loved to Death”

This past summer as millions of Americans adjusted to COVID wrought changes, people flocked to our parks and natural spaces in record numbers. Those of us in the Outings Committee were heartened to see friends and families discovering the joy of nature and reaping the health benefits of outdoor activity. But as Newton’s 3rd law of motion reminds us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction…

An article published in Quartz, a business e-newsletter, tells us that since the pandemic began, Americans’ visits to every destination outside the home – including work, stores, and places to eat –  has seen a decrease of 7% to 23% with one exception: Parks. As indoor options have become less accessible, our friends and neighbors are flocking to local, state and national parks and wilderness areas resulting in an 80% increase in visits to these outdoor spaces. We know that every person who ventures out to experience nature firsthand is more likely to become a supporter of parks and a protector of wildlife and natural spaces. Yet this increase in love for outdoor spaces also threatens those very spaces.

In addition to the enormous strain on our parks’ front country personnel and infrastructure – restrooms, visitors center, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. – this surge in visits is also wreaking havoc on the backcountry trails and sites we love to visit. Disturbing quantities of trash like beer bottles, dog waste bags, food wrappers and toilet paper are strewn about backcountry campsites. At a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, a partially burned “No Fires” sign was found in the remains of a renegade campfire.

Newcomers to the backcountry have simply not had exposure to an outdoor ethic that embraces stewardship of our wild places. According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, (LNT.org) “9 out of 10 people in the outdoors are uninformed about their impacts.” The rest of us can help change that, and we must if we are to protect the wild spaces we love. Read on for some actions to consider.

Set a positive example. Pack out all your own trash but also carry an extra trash bag to pack out trash others have left behind. This Backpacker magazine article features Max Patch, a popular site on the Appalachian trail located in North Carolina. The included photo shows 40+ tents pitched on this single site that is normally occupied by fewer than 5 campers at any given time. When the weekend was over and the campers were gone, a small group of regular hikers visited the site, one of their favorite camping spots, to find it trashed. Together, they picked up “… five bags of trash, four pillows, three blankets, and one wagon with a busted wheel,” that the weekenders had left behind.

Use positive peer pressure. Steve Reinhold of the Appalachian Adventure Company started the social media initiative #trashtag inviting people to post before and after pictures of themselves cleaning up trash in natural areas. That hash tag has been used over 50 million times. Leave No Trace created the #LeaveNoTrash Pledge for the week of October 26th to November 1st. Participants were challenged to do their part by picking up trash and posting their results on social media. But we don’t have to wait for a hash tag. Posting photos and comments of ourselves and others caring for the backcountry, can result in subtle but strong positive peer pressure that will encourage others to follow suit.

Look for opportunities to share the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. This approach can backfire when it is too heavy handed. It is most effective when used in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental manner. LNT.org posted an interesting article on using the Authority of the Resource that addresses this.

Encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature is a good thing. Before they can care about it, they must learn about it and begin to love it. But, as Steve Reinhold put it, “Every area has their own Max Patch. You know which places those are. Protect them before they’re loved to death.”

The scene at Max Patch, NC on a mid-September weekend

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