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When Best Intentions Have Unintended Consequences on Trails

Posted by Loren Drummond at Nov 01, 2015 12:00 AM |
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Whether it’s stacking stones, leaving treasures at summits or marking miles, sometimes hikers’ good intentions leave a lasting mark. Learn what is—and isn’t—cool on trail.

"I took some time to practice my graffiti-removal skills on the large purple ‘1’ that was spray-painted near the one-mile mark on the Snow Lake Trail. I’d say the effort was largely successful, although some of the purple spray paint is still clinging to cracks and crevices in the rock." — benmayberry, Snow Lake

This excerpt from a trip report earlier this year spotlighted a problem we sometimes see on trails. A hiker's helpful act actually does more damage than good. While Ben deserves full kudos for cleaning up a part of the Snow Lake Trail for future hikers, the graffiti he discovered was most likely left to help out hikers. Whether it’s stacking stones, leaving treasures at summits or marking miles, sometimes hikers’ good intentions leave a lasting mark.

Below are a few other practices that, while well-intentioned, should probably be avoided.

Marking or flagging along a trail

Whether it's spray painting markers, carving arrows into trees or flagging an unclear route, it's best to leave marking a trail up to the officials.

Flagging a route can lead heavy traffic onto bootleg trails, confuse hikers and lead folks into dangerous situations. All of these practices violate basic Leave No Trace principles by altering the landscape and leaving trash behind.

If you feel like a trail needs more or new signage, report it to your local ranger station or mention it in a trip report.

Removing debris from decomissioned trails

When trails are dangerous or have been rerouted, rangers might decomission a trail to let it fade back into the forest. They often lay debris across the trail to indicate the closure, and give the trail time to be restored. If you see what looks like a systematic or intentional blockage on a trail, especially at an intersection, leave it be.

Trail treasures left behind

There's no question that nature inspires and moves us, but the products of your inspiration shouldn't be left behind on trail. Take photos, create art, and share it online, but your art projects or celebration stashes should never be left behind for others. While some trail users may enjoy seeing these treasures, it will negatively impact the experience of a place for others.

Geocaching and official summit registers are different beasts, both with land manager approval and strict Leave No Trace impacts.

With hundreds and thousands of hikers visiting a trail in a year, the look and feel of trails would be fundamentally altered if everyone left their treasures behind. Instead, funnel your creativity into art projects that don't leave their mark on the places that inspired you to begin with.

The problem of cached supplies

The Pacific Crest Trail Association has written extensively about the caching of goodies and water for thru-hikers. While the folks who leave unattended caches may seek to delight future hikers, what's left behind can spoil natural experiences, leave tons of trail trash behind and harm wildlife.

"A 12-pack of beer left in the wilderness may be fun and refreshing on a hot summer day. But it’s another encroachment on the wildness that needs all of our protection," writes Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. "Bags of candy stashed in trees from Mexico to Canada may be morale boosters, but they also harm wildlife and starkly interrupt the natural setting of the trail."


Nedd on When Best Intentions Have Unintended Consequences on Trails

First some words on social media. There are so many pictures of tuck and robin, ect. that there is hardly much hope they will be new to anyone. The hikers sense of adventure, which once came from encountering the risky and unpredictable, began to be dulled as the "100 hikes" became the Packaged Tour. The hiker has become a tourist consuming a mass produced guaranteed product. The rise of social media has begun to make actual hikes seem superfluous, and perhaps even a little inferior to what you can get with little trouble and almost no expense on the internet. We have all seen the hiker on the summit who is glued to his screen. In the end the sunset, or the fawn are only given the bogus respect of a poignant camera angle.
Now, in a practical sense this ties in with how we treat our trails and what we want them to be. If they are only to be for human use; ("A zillon more people hiking to Maple Pass means a zillon more people who love hiking! Isn't that wonderful?) then we don't need to worry so much about our impact. I have often thought that WTA has leaned rather heavily in this direction in recent years. I am of a different opinion, and was pleased to see the "Good Intentions" and "Social Media" articles even if they do not go far enough.
One can only compliment the gentleman who cleaned the graffiti from the rock.
Following this example, when you see poor behavior from inexperienced hikers, they will benefit from your direct instruction. No one wants to be the fun police or come off as uptight. But if a few more people were willing to spread the word about "what is-and isn't-cool on a trail" (WTA Vol. 50 pgs 6-7) we would probably have fewer actual serious problems with forest fires, ecosystem damage. And who knows, I haven't been a member for years, might just join back up...

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Nedd on Dec 02, 2015 04:23 PM