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LNT - medium rare
Hello All -
I threatened in one of my earlier postings to chime in on the excellent
campfire thread...so here goes <g>:
First, I need to define some of the terms that I have gotten into the habit
of using. Different folks sometimes mean different things when these words
are used, so I like to try to keep my confusion down a little by explaining
the particular interpretations this north Alabama person likes to go with.
One of the very neat things about "Leave No Trace" (LNT) is that it is
designed to cover virtually all of the backcountry situations us
backcountry users are likely to find ourselves in. The LNT originators
started with the going-in assumption that establishing a "system" of truly
responsible backcountry use was a VERY complex problem. At NO time did
anyone figure that a single magic set of "rules" would cover all the
various ways that all the various users might want to enjoy all the various
The bad news is that one of the frustrating things about presenting LNT is
that there ain't no one single way to do anything.
The good news about presenting LNT is that there ain't no one single way to
do anything <VBG>!
Everything is relative. We do the best we can to do the least amount of
damage in all the various ways we interact with the backcountry
environment. We are never able to do zero damage...we just try to keep our
impact down below the level that the local ecosystem can recover
from...remembering all the while that we are highly likely to be just one
of many (Many MANY) users passing through any given location.
I find it useful to define the various conditions that we are likely to
find in the outback as a continuum - ranging from "highly impacted" on the
one hand, to "pristine" on the other.
"Pristine" is easy: it's any backcountry location that looks as if no
human has ever visited before...it's completely and absolutely natural
(beautiful spots...and warts, too!). A mountain meadow full of wildlife
and undisturbed flora is pristine. That same meadow, after lightning
started a forest fire that burned off the vegetation and drove away the
wildlife, is just as pristine.
"Impacted" is really just as easy to define, but it starts a lot more
arguments <g>. Impacted backcountry would be any location that you could
tell humans had visited. Slightly impacted might simply be a footprint or
two. Heavily impacted might be an overused campsite...or an asphalt
We have all seen the typical "highly impacted" campsite: big bare patch of
ground, precious little small or medium sized vegetation in the area, nails
and burned spots in the tree trunks, lower limbs sawed or broken off the
trees, well-used fire-pit with nearby ash dumps, slightly sour smell from
the spoiled food left in the fire-pit and the rancid grease pit over in one
corner, no firewood to be seen (except the burned stubs near the fire-pit),
lots of little trails, trash mixed in the ashes and scattered around the
site, pee-soaked areas on the edge of the woods, and possibly some piles of
human feces (complete with used toilet paper or KFC napkins) behind nearby
trees or bushes.
Seen any spots like that along the AT?
So, how does the backcountry become impacted?
The most obvious way to me is the direct damage that campers do the
veggies. We grub up protruding roots, break off branches that are in the
way, scuff up or break the small plants on the ground, kill the good
bear-bag branches by sawing their upper bark open with thin ropes, hang hot
lanterns right next to tree trunks, make hot dog sticks out of the thin
limbs, and on and on and on.
Another obvious way is to sterilize the soil by building concentrated
campfires in the same place...over and over. Fire-blackened rocks,
charcoal nubbins, and soot stains on a cliff face will hang around for
thousands of years (ask an archaeologist how they find and date
Equally obvious is the damage we do to the ground by digging, walking in
soft areas, and scrambling up/down steep creek banks to get water, etc.
Much of this damage is obvious in itself and it all can lead to erosion
which gets worse and worse over time.
Another fairly obvious way is to contaminate the area with the various
forms of human left-behinds: trash, garbage, and human waste (gray water,
urine, and feces).
Not so obvious is the compaction of the soil in the high-use areas.
Repeated footfalls on the same little patch of ground eventually compact
the soil so tightly that the complex sub-soil environment (bugs, worms,
microbes, etc.) ceases to exist...and the soil becomes like sterile cement.
The big bare patches are the obvious result, but the little "social"
trails between the tent sites and leading off into the woods are also good
examples of compaction. Slowly and surely, they will be added in and the
bare spots will get bigger and bigger.
Perhaps even less obvious is the gradual denuding of the area's vegetation
that would normally die, become critter habitat, decay, and replenish the
soil. In some areas we have picked so many flowers and gathered so many
nuts that we have completely disrupted the natural reproduction cycle of
the plants. Many sites have been completely stripped of anything organic
that could possibly burn in a campfire. It is not uncommon to find sites
where we have to go 1/4 mile or more to find firewood...and some are up to
1/2 mile. These sites have long since passed the point of natural seasonal
recovery and are slowly becoming mini-deserts.
Perhaps not so obvious at all are the little toxic waste dumps that many of
our fire-pits are becoming. Burning modern plastics in a campfire can
produce some VERY interesting chemicals...ranging from formaldehyde to
dioxins. I have had chemists in the audience claim that it is quite
possible to burn the right plastics under the right conditions and produce
forms of nerve gas (phosgene?) and the killer-gas (Dalcon B?) that was used
at Auschwitz. Not to mention all the bio-hazards that are concentrated in
one spot by using the cold fire-pit as a collection point for all the
little nasties (from rotten stuff to body fluids from sick humans) that we
don't particularly want to carry out.
Least obvious of all are the fleeting impacts that come and go. The visual
impacts (bright colors, camping in the way of beautiful views, etc.) and
noise impacts from other campers that can diminish or even destroy our
wilderness experience. Second-hand campfire smoke can be nice to smell in
tiny amounts...but, can "strangle" us or trigger allergies all too often.
The presence of our pets or stock could be threatening (NOT just
irritating!) to other backcountry users.
Hooboy...I certainly didn't cover all the ways that we can impact the
backcountry, but I think that the above list is more than enough to give
everybody an idea of where I am coming from. Since the thread was about
campfire use, for me it is highly interesting to notice how many of the
various impacts are involved (all or in part) with campfire use.
Hmmmm...is there a nice tidy solution to the problem? The easy one is to
say "NO FIRES"...but we all know that LNT doesn't particularly try to take
the easy road <g>.
This message is getting a dab too long - more on specific recommendation
about fires in another posting!