Regular escape from our increasingly plastic and concrete environment is critical for survival, but humans can love a place to death. Moderating our impacts on the beautiful places to where we escape is critical to ensuring that they remain wild.
These principles define a mindful approach to using and preserving the integrity of wild lands.
Even in the wild, we are not alone. We are amongst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors each year to places like Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, the Catskills, and scores of not-as-secret-as-you-would-think locations in our region. It is the combined effect of visitor after visitor that dramatically alters these places and tarnishes their beauty.
The most obvious impacts visitors have are the things left behind: the wrappers, plastic bottles, and other sundry bits of trash. Perhaps most obnoxious are the carved or painted messages proclaiming love or other less noble sentiments that often appear on rock outcrops and trees
We leave things behind, we take things home, we trample delicate plant life, and we disturb the animals and people around us; we challenge the natural world by our presence and so must work to develop a sound ethic with which to preserve it, both on a grand scale as well as on a more personal level.
American author Aldo Leopold once wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.”
The following seven principles have been developed and promoted by the national nonprofit, Leave No Trace, and they help to define a more mindful approach to using and preserving the integrity of wild lands.
1Plan ahead and prepare
Whether headed into the backcountry for a two-week trek or squeezing in an after-work hike, at least some element of organization is key. With good planning and prep, we increase our understanding of the places we visit and can avoid situations that cause impact.
Find out what rules and recommendations land managers have created for your destination.
For example, Mohonk Preserve decrees that dogs must be on leashes, and food must be stored in bear-proof canisters in the Catskills’ backcountry. Most guidelines can be found online or by calling.
Further preparations might be to take steps to protect oneself from Lyme-disease carrying deer ticks or to bring a treatment for water gathered from streams in order to avoid ingesting parasites. Also bring a map, a compass, a first-aid kit, and some form of communication on your hike; these things are light and can be tremendously useful.
2travel and camp on durable
Erosion is one of the most lasting and insidious impacts that we have on wild areas. When people travel through an area, the soil becomes compacted by repeated footfalls. When this happens, delicate plants, whose root systems hold the soil together, die off. Surface soil then leaches away, further compromising its ability to support plant life.
Many hikers tend to use the edges of trails to avoid deeply rutted, muddy sections. This common practice creates new paths for erosion and narrow islands of plant life that are highly susceptible to even further destruction. By staying along the center of a trail and avoiding the temptation to shortcut them for convenience, we can help to minimize impact.
Also make sure you rest, camp, and picnic in areas where you can move around without disturbing delicate mosses or other plant life. Durable surfaces include the trails themselves, dry streambeds, leafy mats in areas of mature forest, rock slabs, and boulders.
3respect the wildlife
Wild creatures deserve a chance to function in a normal, natural way. We are visitors in wild areas and should always remember that we have entered somebody else’s home. Our actions can have lasting impacts.
Animals and birds that are fed by human beings become used to and sometimes dependent on that interaction. Creatures that are disturbed often become stressed in ways that we may not recognize; they may bite or use critical energy fleeing. There is endless fascination in observing and identifying wild creatures, but leaving them to their business helps ensure that human presence does not disturb natural cycles and events.
4leave what you find
People love to take things home from the places they visit, which explains the t-shirts from Disneyland and coffee mugs from the Grand Canyon. Mementos can take us back to gorgeous places, even though we may be hundreds of miles away.
The problem with taking things from wild lands, though, is that these are fragile and finite resources. When you take into account that many other visitors will likely visit the same place, the problem with removing things becomes apparent. The old adage “take only pictures” very much supports this principle.
5dispose of waste properly
Long-time Mohonk Preserve ranger Bob Elsinger asks that we all lend a helping hand by making a small bag and some gloves part of our outdoor kit and picking up the things less thoughtful visitors leave behind.
Leaving trash behind when visiting wild places is obviously not acceptable. Take the “carry in, carry out” sensibility to heart by avoiding food and water that generates waste in the first place. Make a peanut butter sandwich rather than buying a wrapped Cliff bar, and bring water from home in a safe re-usable bottle.
Further, special steps must be taken “when nature calls” in nature. In desert and alpine environments, many land managers have instituted rules requiring that everything, including human, waste be carried out. These rules are meant to protect the most fragile environments, where soils lack microbes able to break down waste or seemingly biodegradable toilet kits.
In our region, where soils are generally rich in microbes, digging a cat hole nine inches deep in which to deposit waste, filling in soil on top, and lightly tamping it down is acceptable. Toilet paper must never be left sitting on the ground; it should either be placed in a small ziplock bag to be disposed of later, burned, or buried. Remember, all waste must be buried at least 150 feet from open water and trails.
6minimize campfire impact
The Catskills Region is littered with fire rings. These mounds of ash, surrounded by a haphazard ring of rocks and laced with tin foil, glass bottles, old batteries, and all sorts of other debris, are as common as oak trees. Before you decide to build a fire, consider whether or not you really need one. Modern camping stoves are far more efficient than open wood flames for cooking, and despite our endless fascination with the romance of a campfire, sitting in the quiet darkness under a twinkling night sky is just as fun as all the hullabaloo that making and feeding a fire entails.
If you do make a fire, use an existing ring whenever possible, collect only dead wood that is already on the ground, do not put trash in the fire, and when it’s time to sleep, be sure that flames and embers are fully extinguished. In the event that you’ve made a new fire ring, disassemble it the next day and widely disperse the ashes once it is clear there are no remaining embers that could start a fire. Every effort should be made to leave an area in at least as good a condition as when you arrived.
7be considerate of others
No matter your own personal requirements, respecting other visitors by moderating your impact is the ethical thing to do. Concerns like noise and group size are important. Consider moving off a trail to rest so that other visitors do not have to weave through.
Perceptions of what constitutes a wilderness experience vary dramatically. Some need to be days from the road before they are able to fully disengage from the “real” world. Others need only to be wandering down a carriage road a few hundred yards from the parking lot to feel the magic of the natural world. Wherever you roam, remember to be considerate of others.
Joe Vitti is a full-time rock and ice-climbing guide in the Gunks and other major climbing areas around the country. Joe and his wife Colleen live in High Falls, NY with their two kids and dog, Lola. Learn more about Joe’s work at vittimtguides.com.
Photo Credits - 2) Bonticou by @k.wuu 4) Trail at Minnewaska by @dannywild11 8) Mohonk Testimonial Gateway by Krystal Lokys @krystallokys. Click on image too see more.