Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Outdoor Ethics Part 1: Leave No Trace

In case you didn't know, I'm the CoChair of the Friends of Kananaskis. The Friends is a non-profit organization that exists to assist Alberta Parks in the long term management and protection of Kananaskis Country, a 4,000 square kilometre area of fabulous mountain landscapes and parks in Alberta. I also write the majority of content for the Friends' newsletter.

In 2019, I wrote an 8 part series on Outdoor Ethics. I keep referencing it and wish there was a better way to reference it to others, so decided to reproduce that series here.


Growing up in Ontario over 50 years ago, I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, and some time volunteering with the Bruce Trail Association. The majority of the volunteering I did as a teenager was repairing the damage done by trail users, which included cleaning up the campsites and shelters that were along the trail then (they’re all gone now), fixing broken stiles and gates that crossed fences, collecting garbage, repainting damaged blazes and repairing trees that had initials carved in them. I guess that was the start for me of the concept of Leave No Trace.

I never understood why people couldn’t leave things the way they found them. I got the concept of accidentally dropping a bit of paper, but couldn’t understand folks who neatly collected their trash in plastic bags -- only to leave the bags on the trail (much like dog poop bags today, which is a plague not just in K-Country but around the world as any Google search will show you). The whole idea that “if I carried it in, I could carry it out” seemed pretty intuitive to me.

I wasn’t even a personal fan of fires in the wilderness, even when I went camping or backpacking. Ignoring the fact that it made my clothes smell, it always left ash or charred wood or blackened rocks, which was clear evidence that I had been there. SO many people have random fires in K-Country, especially up the creeks, and leave them as scars on the landscape. The mess below was one of THREE (illegal) fire pits within 50' of this location.
There are ways to build low-impact fires, and that's not it
I used to think: “take only pictures, leave only footprints”. But I now understand that there are a lot of places where even leaving footprints is creating permanent scars on the landscape. And don't get me started on graffiti.

As more and more people recreate in our wild spaces, the concept of the ethics of being in the wilderness is more and more important. Enter the Leave No Trace global movement, and specifically in Canada, Leave No Trace Canada. To quote their website:

Leave No Trace Canada is a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships. Leave No Trace builds awareness, appreciation and respect for our wildlands.

Many of us have taken a pine cone or rock, veered off the trail to dodge mud puddles, gotten too close to wildlife or tossed an apple core into the woods. While these actions may seem harmless at the time, until we learn to reduce our impact, the quality of our outdoor experiences and the recreational resources we enjoy are at critical risk. Also at risk is our continued access to wildlands as land management agencies sometimes take restrictive action to protect the resources they manage. Unless, of course, education catches up with behavior, and we all learn to leave the outdoors as unchanged as possible by our presence.

I have experienced land managers clawing back access first hand. As just one example, it is an annual occurence for Bruce Trail private landowners to get tired of the mess users make (and I was cleaning up regularly back in the 1970's), and revoke permission for the trail to cross their land, necessitating major trail re-routes. As I noted above, there are no longer shelters or campsites along the Bruce Trail; all were removed because they were being abused.

And if you spend time in Kananaskis, you have experienced it, too. As one example, Mt. Indefatigable’s east ridge used to be an incredibly popular official hike complete with memorial benches. Now there’s this sign posted at the trailhead, and you can't go up the trail without passing it.
I would have thought this was a clear message
Research and collar data clearly shows that grizzlies forage in the summer, and head up there in the fall to den (and later in this series, I'll provide more data on this particular problem area). For the sake of the grizzlies, the trail was decommissioned, and land mangers asked people to respect the trail closure. Has that stopped people going up there? Nope, not at all. Making arguments like “if the grizzlies were there, they would put an area closure in place” or “I’ll make sure we don’t disturb them” or “you could run into bears anywhere”, sadly many, many folks ignore the request and still use that trail.

Another example was the closure of several sections of trail (including a newly built trail) last summer in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park on the east bank of Cougar Creek in an area referred to as the Horseshoe Loop. The Friends has been heavily involved since 2015 working in partnership with various land managers and user groups (including CAMBA, who is quoted in the linked article) to reduce trail density on the land in that area. Everyone agrees that the trail density is too high. Research (that I help with) clearly shows the deleterious effect that trail density has had, and is having, on wildlife. In the end, the land managers have the final say, and sometimes, actions to protect the land they manage will be taken.

Many places in K-Country are under such pressures, and I don’t see the trend of potentially increasing restrictive actions ending any time soon. Since the Friends is in the education business, enhancing education regarding treading lightly in the wilderness is part of what we need to do.

In this 8 part series, I’m going to use Leave No Trace Canada’s 7 Principles of Leave No Trace to explore ways to minimize our impact as users of K-Country, and how we can keep “A Kananaskis Country of exquisite natural and cultural landscapes enjoyed by present and future generations” – which just happens to be the Friends vision.

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