So most anyone interested at all in the outdoors has read about the “Leave no trace” or LNT principles. Which in short state that nature is to be seen, not touched, not trampled on (IE. the outdoors is a museum to be looked at not interacted with).
I find fault with this, on many levels.
Let’s take the basic principles of LNT one by one. In the interest of simplicity in this post i’m going to break things down into “energy” meaning energy used and “impact” meaning physical environmental impact. Also “wilderness” refers to any wild area where mankind has had a minimal impact not designated Wilderness areas.
#1 Plan ahead and prepare.
This one is good. It’s hard to argue that preparing is an excellent idea. But, what kind of preparation are we talking about? Let’s compare a modern backpacker with a wood/bushcrafter.
Backpacker – Modern ultralight gear
Impact: High to Extreme. Consider everything in a modern backpackers gear. Titanium pot and cup, modern backpack, modern aluminum and steel stove, ultralight tent with nylon and aluminum, down sleeping bag, carbon fiber trekking poles, nylon or gore-Tex clothing. All the materials to make these things had to be mined or synthesized, almost nothing in a modern backpackers gear is natural. Think of the environmental impact of titanium and bauxite mining, fiberglass and epoxy resin for carbon fiber, not to mention all the chemicals required to process all these materials. Even if we say a modern backpackers gear will last a reasonable amount of time we all know that people upgrade their gear, and that gear breaks or wears out. Is that gear repaired? Usually not, it’s mostly just thrown away and replaced with something new which adds to landfill impact. Along with this add the packaging for many of these materials which is often not recyclable. (Think for example how some ultralight backpackers remove all the tags from their clothing, but do they bother to wonder of the impact of what they do with those removed tags?) Also consider those things that are intended to be disposable, such as fuel canisters, i’m sure many recycle them but many also just throw them into the garbage.
Energy: High to Extreme. From the mining of the raw materials, to the transportation, then the processing on to the processing to the construction then finally the transportation to the retail establishment and it’s purchase by the consumer there is significant energy expended here. There is also the energy of the petroleum fuel that is being used in the stove. It has to be brought up, refined and delivered.
Wood/Bushcrafter – Old traditional gear
Impact: Low to High. Consider what a bushcrafter might carry. Hatchet, knife, plastic tarp, wool blanket, backpack. Some of these things might be modern, and they might be old. For the sake of this post I’ll consider the bushcrafter with old gear. He uses a military pack he got at an army surplus store, and a hatchet he got there as well. His knife is a hand-me-down from his grandfather, the wool blanket he got from a local store made with homespun yarn, he carries a WW2 mess kit and canteen. He’s likely also wearing wool and cotton clothing. Yes, many of these things have impacts, but they are much lower than modern day gear, also they are more likely to be secondhand, which have no packaging or modern construction impacts. There is also the fact that his gear is likely going to last much longer than modern gear. A WW2 canteen is simply going to outlast a titanium cup due to it’s strength, the cup is built for minimum weight, the canteen was built tough. The wool blanket will outlast the modern sleeping bag, and replacing a tarp is much less impact than replacing an entire ultralight tent. Yes, he has impact of gathering wood and putting together a camp, but this can be undone. It does not leave things in a pristine state but the impact is usually minimal. If one leaves poles laying around for another to use in building a lean-to there is even less impact since the second has no need to gather so many resources.
Energy: Low to Medium. Since he is not making use of modern materials he has limited energy impact. Some things might be delivered between retail stores, and there is all the energy expended in the past to make his gear. He is having an energy impact by gathering wood to cook with, but this is considerably less than that of the petroleum fuel stove user.
#2 Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
Durable, exactly what is “durable”? Dirt? Granite? Asphalt?
If we try to say that hikers using a trail have less impact than those going off-trail is that true? The impact of this one is going to be the same for whoever is going into the wilderness, how much is that impact really? We see impact because, well, humans have an impact when they go someplace, step on something or touch something. Are we really trying to say “Stay on the trails” and expecting people will listen? And in telling people to use existing trails what have we done, in many areas we have paved the wilderness to allow more people into it, is that “low impact”?
This one is more wishful thinking than reality, people do not all color inside the lines, and if more people went further off-trail the impacts would be much less concentrated. However think about this really, to a deer or a rabbit does it matter if a slope is eroding? No. Does it matter to a fish is there is more particulate matter in a stream? Yes actually, because that means more nutrients.
The outdoors is not a fine glass figurine that must be treated with delicate care lest it shatter forever, it is a living thing, that can repair itself into new forms, the problem is that repair takes longer than humans are willing to wait, and the new forms are not what people want to see.
#3 Dispose of waste properly.
What is “properly”? For the sake of this post let’s assume that everything besides human bodily waste is being disposed of someplace besides the wilderness, or by fire.
Modern waste – Freeze-dried food containers, broken modern gear, aluminum foil packaging, plastic packaging.
Impact: High. Even if people pack out everything how many throw it into the garbage? This is still having an impact, it’s just not having an impact that we see in the wilderness areas. Rather we’re putting it into someone Else’s backyard. Plastics can be burned to ash in a fire, but that releases their toxins into the atmosphere.
Energy: Medium to High. Trash and recycling has to be transported and dealt with.
Natural waste – Paper, broken wood and steel gear, tin cans.
Impact: Low to Medium. Broken wood implements and paper packaging can be burned with minimal impact and no need of collection or modern disposal. Steel knives and hatchets can be reforged or re-hafted and reused. Tin (steel) cans can be recycled of course, but some people melt them down and directly reuse them, however even if steel is left in the environment it will eventually rust, and at a pace far greater than it would break down if thrown into a landfill. (I’m sure we have all seen 100+ year old tin cans rusting to bits)
Energy: Low to Medium. Self-made gear has little to no energy impact is made from natural materials. Someone forging their own hatchet or their own knife, or getting one that is handmade, will have much less impact than getting something mass-produced. Yes, there are still impacts but buying from a blacksmith 2 miles away where he makes knives from old car parts consumes much less energy than buying a brand new knife made in China.
#4 Leave what you find.
How much of what I find? Should I consider a rotting and rusting hulk of a covered wagon “historic?” What about an old Plymouth? How about a modern abandoned truck? Of course this is in the eye of the beholder, but any archaeologist will tell you that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
So let’s consider this to mean anything “Natural”. Dirt, rocks, native plants, deer antlers.
Does this mean that I leave non-native species? Should I tear out something I see growing that is invasive and then try to explain my actions to someone on the trail that thinks I’m not practicing LNT? What about a meteorite? (Yes, you can get extremely pedantic when considering these things, but most people don’t want to go there.) How about taking apples or nuts in season? Think about that in the “Respect Wildlife” section.
Yes, not following this rule could easily lead to taking massive amount of materials from the wilderness, but on the other hand collecting rocks, minerals and dead wood is often allowed in wilderness areas. If the contentious LNT follower wants to leave the wilderness pristine they might be better served by changing the law than acting morally superior to their non-LNT counterparts.
Consider the person who picks up a stick for walking, then discards it back into the forest against the one that buys a set of trekking poles whic will eventually be discarded into a landfill.
#5 Minimize Campfire impacts.
While this is “minimize” most modern backpackers seem to have taken this to mean “NO CAMPFIRES!”. Should we figure that burning the underbrush and dead wood in a forest is a bad thing? Well, forest fires are much less devastating when smaller fires come through from time to time and burn out the small growth. Many areas where humans are common have not had these preventative fires, mainly due to humans thinking that any fire in the forest is a bad thing.
While this rule is optional to modern backpackers it is a requirement for the bushcrafter who wants to stay warm. Is it more environmentally friendly to craft a modern sleeping bag and deliver it to it’s end user, or to burn some of the available wood for warmth? Which one will have an ongoing impact? (Consider at this time that sleeping bags cannot be recycled, and only the sleeping-bag maker Golite accepts it’s bags back for recycling, tho only to store them until they can someday be recycled)
#6 Respect Wildlife.
While the LNT folks say they have literature on making their principles work with hunting I cannot believe how they could. Killing the wildlife seems completely and directly opposed to the concept of respecting wildlife that modern environmentalists swear by.
Often this is taken to mean that humans should not “get in the way” of wildlife, but exactly how can we prevent this? Sure, we can not pitch camp in the middle of a trail, but simply having the scent of humans around is going to spook wildlife that might need to come near to drink from a lake or stream, etc. This is another one of those times when LNT = Stay at home.
And also if I go out and kill a rabbit for my dinner am I disrespecting it? Let’s think for a moment about the two sides of this issue.
Killing a rabbit or catching a fish in the wilderness
Impact: Minimal, animal is removed from the food chain. This opens up opportunities for another animal to fill. Sometimes this could even be considered helpful, such as removing an overpopulation of rabbits because the natural predators are gone (Once again, thanks to humans) or catching and eating invasive fish. (Crater lake for example allows no-limit fishing and all invasive fish are to be killed)
Energy: None save human energy to catch/prepare/consume animal.
Bringing your own food to the wilderness
Impact: Low to high. Depends on the packaging used and how harmful the creation of the food is. IE, home picked fruit is better than an orchard is better than a pig farm, etc.
Energy: Low to High. If I am bringing in freeze-dried food sealed in a foil bag how much energy was wasted by preparing that food, moving it, packaging it, and on making the packaging itself. On the other hand if you’re bringing in apples, grapes, nuts, pears, etc that you bought locally, or better yet picked from your yard the energy spent is low to minimal. In both cases there is still the energy spent hauling that food to the wilderness trailhead.
#7 Be considerate of other visitors.
On it’s face this is a good idea but like anything it can go overboard. If we go by the “Golden Rule” of do unto others as you would have them do unto you then we’re always going to have people with varying views of good behavior.
In the end there is a difference between being loud because you are just normally a loud person and dumping your trash into someone Else’s campsite. The slider here can be moved towards either end depending on your personal views of what is “considerate”.
In the end can we truly expect others to act the way we want them to act, especially in a space where the “rules” are so ambiguous? Do we have a right to impose our judgments when their views might simply differ from ours but their end goal is the same? And the culmination of this point is that perhaps LNT folks would not try and force their views onto others, right?
Sure, we’re having an impact, but my point is we will ALWAYS have an impact, sitting at home looking at pictures of the wilderness on the computer uses energy, but people have ignored those impacts and focused on the impacts they see firsthand in their own environment. We have been fed nice clean “rules” to follow, and just blissfully ignored the damage being done by the companies making the gear to fill the needs created by those rules. In the end I believe that is far worse than what the rules were made to prevent and that it has become too easy to ignore the harm we are doing because we feel we are doing good.
In the end the only way to truly leave NO trace, is to not go into the wilderness at all, and even then humans are having an incredible impact on the globe. When is it time to say the game is lost and throw in the towel?
I believe we are far past that point.
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