“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In two years, many Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The passage above is an often-quoted piece of the act. But it is also a piece that is arguably unknown or overlooked by the millions of Americans who trample onto — and perhaps leave trammeled — national wilderness lands every year.
In Colorado, a place well-known for outdoor recreation and being home to the Rocky Mountains and their wealth of flora and fauna, balancing the love of the outdoors with the mandates of the Wilderness Act may be of vital importance to the protection of these lands.
Another part of the legislation speaks to the lands being left unimpaired so they can be enjoyed by future generations. While Coloradans may want their kids and grandkids to enjoy the same natural landscapes they do today, some experts say that today’s recreation is threatening delicate wilderness ecosystems. Even Coloradans who understand the need for preservation and protection may recoil at the mere thought of abandoning their weekend backcountry excursions. So, then, how do we continue to enjoy Mother Nature without loving her to death?
“Coloradans love their outdoors,” says Ralph Swain, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional wilderness program manager. “This is why people move here. It’s why people stay here. It’s why they live here. They love visiting wilderness.”
There are roughly 3 million people living along or near the Front Range, and many live here because of the abundance of easily accessible wilderness. Research has shown that recreation has significant impacts on the biophysical and social aspects of an area. A Forest Service study shows recreation has direct effects on the soil, vegetation, wildlife and water, including a loss of mineral soil, fragile soil, trees, shrubs and wildlife habitat, as well as introducing exotic species and changing the composition of the vegetation, wildlife and water. The cumulative effect of millions of enthusiastic visitors can have devastating consequences.
“In the U.S., we are not making any more recreation land. In fact, it’s dwindling,” says Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. “There are more and more people trying to enjoy a finite resource.”
“People don’t always see immediate impacts,” Lawhon continues. “But then, all of a sudden, we’re seeing things like wildlife in trash cans in South Boulder.”
Thankfully, many actions can mitigate our impact, and applying Leave No Trace principles is a good start.
Making sure that you have things like water and a map are vital. Educate yourself about where you are heading. Read signs and ask questions.
When it comes to human waste, the best practice is to “go before you go.” If you’re camping, experts suggest packing out your waste. While this might seem unappealing, and digging a hole is the preferred method of disposing of fecal waste, remember that you are not the only person using the area. If you’re on a trail with your dog, pick up after your pet.
Food and trash
Properly storing food and trash is extremely important, Lawhon says. If you’re not actively using your food, it should be locked in a trunk or in a vehicle. Not doing so may invite local wildlife. This not only poses safety issues, but also may compromise the health and well-being of the attracted animals.
Wilderness experts stress the importance of being careful with fire.
“Make sure that fires are definitely out before you abandon them,” says Elsha Kirby, the Boulder Ranger District’s public affairs officer. “Don’t just put dirt or rocks on it. Dump gallons of water on it. If you see smoke or hear popping, the fire is not out.”
Kirby also suggests sensing for heat. While a fire may appear to be out, winds could pick up a flame. Kirby says firefighters are constantly putting out abandoned campfires rather than tending to other important work.
Stay on path
Erosion is a serious concern. Creating a new path to avoid mud or a fallen tree is a major issue, Kirby says. Walking around a path causes erosion and damages vegetation.
“User-created trails are a big problem,” Kirby explains. “People don’t think that their tracks are going to be used again, but they are. And if trails are not built sustainably, they create damage.”
If you cannot get through on a trail, Kirby suggests turning around and finding another route.
Volunteer or donate
Swain says that one of the best wilderness volunteer organizations is based right here in Boulder. Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance trains volunteers to perform trail maintenance and talk with visitors about taking care of wilderness and protecting it for use by future generations. If your schedule disallows you from volunteering, you can donate to the nonprofit organization.
“We should challenge ourselves and others to learn something new about camping and being smart about recreating,” says Kirby. “A lot of people in Colorado are outdoor savvy, but that doesn’t take away our responsibility to learn more.”
While many of these actions may seem obvious, even small steps to improve outdoor ethics can make a big difference. And often it is just a matter of gaining some knowledge about the wilderness areas that you are visiting.
“People do not come to wilderness to intentionally do harm,” says Swain. “Most just come unprepared and uninformed.”
There are many resources dedicated to outdoor education, such as Leave No Trace and www.wilderness.net.
“We all have to share these things,” Lawhon says of our finite resources and wilderness lands. “Keeping simple things in mind is really important. Doing anything above and beyond what you’re currently doing is better.”