Outdoor Ethics Program Helps Preserve Environment

May 30, 2013

Officials say campfires can leave long-lasting detrimental impact on environment.

With spring upon us, and summer right around the corner, this is the time of year when many people are enjoying the great outdoors.  Leave No Trace – a national program designed to the help those recreating outdoors learn how to minimize their impact on the environment and enjoy nature - responsibly.

It seems as though you can go just about anywhere outdoors, and along with majestic beauty, you’ll find litter, trash, abandoned campsites – evidence of people that have been there before you. 

Leave No Trace is a national non-profit program that teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly when doing activities like hiking, biking, and camping.

Leave No Trace officials say their program is appropriate for anyone - whether they’re spending time in a city park or in federally designated wilderness areas.  They say that every year more than three-hundred-million people are recreating on public lands, and that number is rising. 

“The idea behind Leave No Trace is that it’s really about outdoor ethics - in terms of making good decisions about minimizing your individual impact,” says Lawhon.

Ben Lawhon is the Education Director for Leave No Trace. He says that ethics boil down to what you do when no one else is watching.

Lawhon says people typically do not maliciously harm the environment - instead they are just uninformed on proper protocol. He says the Leave No Trace program can help. He says the program educates outdoor recreationists of all skill levels on simple ways to have an immediate effect on the environment – like properly disposing of trash and litter.

“Pack it in pack it out.  Everything that you take into the out-of-doors with you essentially needs to come back out.  The idea is that those items probably wouldn’t be there if you weren’t there, and so think about leaving places as good or better than you found them,” says Lawhon.

While litter and trash detract from the natural beauty of the outdoors, there are some things that can have a far more devastating effect on the environment.

Dr. Jeff Marion is an ecological research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Virginia Tech. He says campfires leave the most detrimental and longest-lasting impact.  He says there are responsible ways to enjoy a campfire - like elevating it in a fire pan.

“You know, when you build a campfire you basically cook the earth below it, you consume all the organic materials in the soil layers.  You know, you kill the macro-invertebrates and the flora and fauna of the soil,” says Marion.

Marion says a fire that is a foot tall and a foot wide is all most campers should need.

He adds that it is also important to respect wildlife when outdoors and not to feed them because they could become “food conditioned”.  If and when that happens, wild animals often end up having to be removed.

“You know wildlife are meant to be wild and people frequently will see animals out there in the environment and say that animal kind of looks hungry – I think I’ll give it some of my food. Cheetos and Doritos and things like that – potato chips – they aren’t part of the wildlife’s food pyramid.  It’s not healthy food for them. And it’s really best if we don’t allow wildlife to obtain any human food whether it’s intentional feeding or unintentional,” says Marion.

Marion says food should be stored at least one-hundred yards away from campsites. Even though there are no known bears living in South Dakota, he says it is still a good idea to hang food to keep raccoons and skunks away.

Tracy Sigdestad is the South Dakota Leave No Trace advocate and is stationed in the Black Hills.  Sigdestad says she sees most visitor impact in the form of cigarette butts, litter, and switchbacks – that’s where people make their own trails.

She says her mission is to educate people of all ages and get them involved in recreating outdoors responsibly.

“Repackage all of your foods so you have minimal waste as far as litter so it’s easier to pack out.  As far as minimizing your campfire impact, you really don’t need to cut the wood.  We kind of recommend to find downed, dead wood – something that you could break by hand.  As far as cutting switchbacks, just stay on the trail, walk single file on the trail - that helps with keeping erosion away,” says Sigdestad.

Sigdestad says Leave No Trace is about principles, not rules.

“We all love the land, and it’s our right for us all to use them and to love them and to enjoy them, and, ultimately I think it’s very important to spread the awareness and become stewards of our land so it’s there for us always,” says Sigdestad.

Leave No Trace works with the Girl and Boy Scouts as well as federal agencies like the US Forest Service and the National Park Service to educate people nationwide on how to recreate responsibly.