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Many Traces Left

Photo was taken by Mike Wurman legally and was not in any violation or rules or protocols.

A reminder that we all play a role in protecting the outdoors

By now many of you have probably seen the photo that’s making its rounds on social media of Max Patch—the coveted grassy bald mountain accessed via the Appalachian Trail near the North Carolina/Tennessee border—over the weekend. If you haven’t, picture the copious amount of litter that’s typically scattered across the grounds of a multi-day music festival on the morning after the event’s final day. Now take away the countless volunteers, green teams, and staff members who clean up those sites to leave them in tip-top shape after the party has moved on. 

I find it hard to believe that a place of such beauty, a place where one can feel the unbridled energy of the surrounding landscapes, could be turned into a landfill. And I’ve noticed this becoming a pervasive problem in the past six months. In early March, at the onset of the pandemic, my wife and I regularly went backpacking in one of our favorite wilderness areas. We did this for several weeks, and on our last trip, before access was restricted for safety, we noticed an uptick in garbage, fecal matter, and just general signs of overuse impact.

Admittedly, seeing trash left at Max Patch and other beloved gems in the Blue Ridge backcountry makes me incredibly angry, but we’ve had enough recent negativity and we certainly don’t need another source. So here’s something positive to celebrate—during these times of great uncertainty, many folks are reconnecting with the outdoors. As COVID-19 continues running its course, people are seeking wide-open spaces, so bikes are selling out and more boots are on trails. And with more folks retreating to the woods, the naïve hope is that our society will also benefit in the form of happier and healthier citizens. 

So the old saying of, “you don’t know what you don’t know” is one that comes to mind. The principles of Leave No Trace might be ingrained in the brains of experienced adventurers, but many new explorers may not realize how easy it is to harm native habitats. Now more than ever it’s important to impart that knowledge and encourage others to enjoy, but also be stewards of, our wild lands.

This reminds me of a slogan in the tourism office of my former hometown: “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.” Some might interpret this as snobby or elitist, but I think it comes from a place of love. A love for the spaces that have made us feel so alive and a concern that they won’t be around in their current state for future generations to enjoy. There is an understated joy in opening up a map, looking at topographic lines, and then going out and exploring an area with no trail names just to see what’s out there. 

So sure, be mindful of the places you’re tagging on social media that you truly love if you want to preserve them. But that’s only a step. Get out, volunteer, and tell your friends who are newly getting outside to give a damn. It’s an easy assumption to think that the ranger will come pick up after you, but in case you haven’t heard, land management agencies are severely understaffed and underfunded. We all have a role to play.

Also, take a friend or a kid out for the first time and plant the seed that will blossom into a future ambassador of our lands. Hopefully more and more groups exploring our wild spaces means there will be more tree-huggers like myself who cringe at the sight of trash on Max Patch and are willing to take action. 

I’ll leave you with the 7 principles of Leave No Trace: 

  • Plan ahead and prepare 
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces (AKA, don’t shred Bent Creek/Dupont when it’s a sloppy mess)
  • Dispose of Waste Properly (not on the ground)
  • Leave What You Find (Leave only footprints, take only pictures)
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts (And keep your gender-reveal parties in check)
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors (We should implement this in more than one place!)

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