Monday, May 5, 2008

Recreation ecology...

The science and practice of Leave No Trace.

The footprints of humanity track our natural world in every corner of the globe and in many ways. We are part of the ecology of wild places. Outdoor recreation leaves tracks and traces on our green spaces and wildlands alike. Often our collective tracks and impacts coalesce into trails and social trail networks, campsites and campsite clusters, mud puddles, migrating fire rings, severely compacted and eroded soils, and establishment of invasive species brought into wildlands by our wheels, boots, and boats. Our favorite wild places are threatened by careless use.

Fragile beauty, whether a riparian ecosystem or a single flower, is too often impacted by careless recreational use, even in the most remote wild areas. Large white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and many other native plants will wither away where frequent campers compact the soil.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers outdoor recreation enthusiasts guidance for reducing impacts to natural areas. Their science-based materials offer suggestions for diverse user groups from horsemen and fishermen, to hunters and backpackers. Leave No Trace (LNT) was developed by experts with federal land management agencies and by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Agencies worked with NOLS to combine many agency and private initiatives for reducing outdoor impacts into one science-based approach.

We may view our personal impact in the great outdoors as inconsequential, but Virginia Tech researcher Jeff Marion sees our cumulative impacts through the prism of scientific investigations, and what Jeff sees threatens the quality of our recreation spaces from city parks to national parks, and our wild places from the back-forty to federal wilderness areas. "What we need is an outdoor ethics revolution" Jeff explains. Jeff traveled to BSA's Camp Oyo surrounded by Shawnee State Forest during April to offer professional instruction to LNT Master Educator trainees, your blogger included.

Recreation ecologist Dr. Jeff Marion instructing BSA scouting council leaders in the science and practice of low impact outdoor recreation during a Leave No Trace Master Educator Course, six days of theory and practice. Jeff 'wrote the book' (and many scientific papers) on reducing impacts to wild places while sustaining outdoor recreation opportunities.

One common misconception among backpacking enthusiasts is that spreading out their tent sites in popular camping areas is good for the environment. Unfortunately, sensitive locations become established campsites after as few as three uses in a season. Even more durable locations tend to become campsites after just a dozen uses.

Interestingly, campers tend to gravitate to the same locations when searching for a campsite. Quickly, after just a few uses, lightly disturbed locations become even more inviting to others seeking privacy and an easy place to set up away from the crowd. This casual site selection process results in expanding campsite clusters with many extraneous satellite camps in sensitive areas. The same thing happens with casual trail selection. A game trail becomes an eroded shortcut after surprisingly few uses.

The answer? When camping and hiking in popular remote areas or frontcountry parks and campgrounds, it's better to concentrate use on already compacted sites and on managed trails. Some sites and pathways must be sacrificed, then managed for use by frequent campers and hikers while surrounding potential sites are left to recover.

Many outdoor recreation enthusiasts recognize the wear and tear in their favorite wild places. Many do not realize their methods are damaging the resource. Recreation area managers deal with the damage daily.

Wildlife management is a huge concern in popular wild places. Unfortunately, slogans like, "Fed wildlife is dead wildlife." often fall on deaf ears because our individual impact seems so trivial at the time. Throwing those cold French fries out the car window to that bear gets us a great close in photograph. Did you ever wonder why that bear and her cubs are hanging out by the roadside?

The LNT message is summarized in Seven Principles:

Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Respect Wildlife
Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Legendary through-hiker and Leave No Trace expert Charlie Thorpe offering guidance to trainers in training in Ohio's Shawnee Wilderness Area, Scioto County during a trail break.

Charlie Thorpe has carried the LNT message to tens of thousands, worldwide. And, he has logged many thousands of miles on the big trails like the AT (the Appalachian Trail, the whole thing), and the PCT (the Pacific Crest Trail, again, the whole thing), and so on. Charlie has lived the message from trail to trail, event to event. He is a passionate supporter of scouting, worldwide. Last year Charlie took the LNT message to world scouting's 100 year celebration in England where tens of thousands participated.

Scouting youth spend millions of camp nights in the great outdoors annually. Outdoor ethics have been integral to scouting from the beginning 100 years ago. Nonetheless, ethical practices have changed with increased use of wild places, and some scouting units have performed poorly in the past, by using old fashioned approaches like ditching tent sites or cutting firewood in inappropriate places. The shear number of youth going camping through scouting annually is a wonder and a challenge. An occasional bad example reflects on the whole organization.

Today, scouts are practicing LNT's scientific methods more and more. Scouting rank requirements are changing to require these scientific practices for all advancement levels. Each of scouting's traditional programs, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and the rapidly growing coed Venturing program for older youth, offer age-appropriate lessons and skills development.

There have been low impact slogans for thirty years, now; "Pack it in. Pack it out", "Give a Hoot. Don't pollute." "Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.", and so on. LNT brings them all together through peer-reviewed science, and passionate educators.

Leave No Trace, outdoor ethics and skills are all about the conservation of wild places and recreation spaces. Check out LNT today.

A personal thanks to Charlie Thorpe (traveling from Alabama) and Jeff Marion (traveling from Virginia) for their extraordinary generosity in sharing their skills and message. Thanks also to Al "Yeti" Martin, course lead instructor, Clark Sexton (traveling from Georgia), instructor, Irv Martin, instructor, Bob Havreberg, instructor, and instructor and course director Dr. Kerry Cheesman.