For best views of the summer constellations
Plan to Leave No Trace
July 2, 2005
Until they pitch a cold camp, backcountry travelers may never fully appreciate the blaze of stars visible from above 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies.
Build a campfire, and your vision will be overwhelmed by the bright light thrown off by the flames. But backpackers who choose to cook their dinner on a small gas stove and give up the warmth of a fire, will be treated to a view of the Milky Way few others have witnessed. They may not realize it, but they also will be practicing one of the seven basic tenets of the increasingly widespread “Leave No Trace” ethic.
Leave No Trace is nothing new — public lands managers and conservation groups have been pushing it since the 1970s. However, the growing number of people visiting public lands is having ever increasing effects on sensitive areas such as the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
Hahn’s Peak District wilderness manager Jon Halverson ends every interview with a plea for wilderness visitors to “leave no trace.”
Halverson said building a campfire within an existing fire ring is fine, but creating a new fire ring should be avoided.
“I’m not anti-fire, I’m anti-fires done improperly,” Halverson said. “when you look at the primary impact in the wilderness, it’s a fire ring. And when you think about it, a fire is not a necessity, it’s a luxury.”
Halverson said he builds campfires less and less because he doesn’t feel like taking the trouble to do it right. But when he wants a campfire, he takes a large piece of fire resistant material from a firefighter’s shelter out of his pack and spreads it on the ground. It’s the first step in building a fire mound.
The typical backpacker might bring along a doubled-over sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. The next step is to collect loose soil from a cut bank or the mound outside a rodent burrow. Pile it 4 to 6 inches deep on the foil, and you have a safe platform on which to build a fire.
Limit the fuels to sticks found on the ground that are small enough so they can be broken by hand.
When the fire has burned down completely, the ashes can be scattered and the soil returned to its source.
“There’s no evidence you even had a fire,” Halverson said. “Rock fire rings don’t contain a fire anyway.”
At this time of year in particular, Halverson urges wilderness hikers to stay on existing trails, even when they are muddy and running with snowmelt. Walking outside the trail broadens the damage to sensitive Alpine meadows.
Leave No Trace is gathering momentum, thanks in part to the establishment in 1994 of the nonprofit organization Leave No Trace Inc., which maintains an educational Web page at http://www.LNT.org.
Scott Reid of Leave No Trace said the code of ethics implicit in the movement is based on the premise that America’s public lands are a finite resource. Their social and ecological values are inseparable from the integrity of their natural environment and the plant and animal communities that inhabit them.
One of the more disturbing findings to come out of research into human impacts on wilderness is that the damage isn’t found only at heavily visited areas, such as Gilpin Lake in the Zirkel Wilderness, but at sites that see relatively light visitation.
Jeff Marion of the U.S. Geological Service cited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where, in the mid-1980s, almost all the total loss of tree seedlings and a majority of soil compaction was found on sites receiving just 12 nights of use a year.
The seven basic principles of Leave No Trace ask wilderness visitors to plan ahead by keeping the size of their group down. Small details, such as removing the packaging from prepared foods before a trip, make it easier to pack out all trash.
By choosing camp sites on durable surfaces such as gravel and dry grasses, people can minimize the damage on the land.
Human waste should be deposited in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp sites and trails.
Backpackers should consider carrying a small kitchen strainer to filter food residue from dishwater. Halverson said he carries a small piece of window screen for the same purpose, but a bandana could be used effectively.
The food particles then can be dumped into a plastic bag and packed out of the wilderness. Dishes should be washed 200 feet from the water supply using a small amount of biodegradable soap.
Hikers are urged to observe wildlife from a distance and keep pets under control at all times. If you can’t control them, leave them at home.
For a complete list of Leave No Trace practices, visit LNT.org.
Remember, a campfire is an unnecessary luxury on a fine summer night.
And, if you hope to get the best view possible of the Perseid meteorite shower when it peaks Aug. 11, head for the wilderness and instead of building a campfire, bring your gas stove along.
— To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail email@example.com