Opinion- Can We Really Leave No Trace?

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I once took four pretty little rocks home from Goblin Valley State Park. The girl I was with, who took about seven rocks, told me she believed in No Trace Principles, but that, “we might as well enjoy nature before it’s gone because it’s disappearing anyway.”

Another time, I didn’t stop my friend as he lit a fire in the sand in Coyote Gulch. He didn’t burn anything large. He didn’t move any stones. He buried the ashes. His only justification being that he “really, really wanted to have a fire.”

Not long ago, my friends and I went to Escalante to do a single rappel in Egypt 3 Canyon in Escalante. We dragged along a rope because the canyon beta report said that there would be no need for webbing or any other equipment. Apparently, the anchor for the rappel was a natural arch that could be rappelled off double-stranded using only a rope. The beta assured us that we wouldn’t have to pull our rope and risk scarring the sandstone arch, but that we could double back on our way out of the canyon to retrieve our rope on the hike to the car. Once in the canyon, we reached a drop we thought might be the rappel, but we were skeptical. Were we supposed to set up the rope and rappel, at risk of abandoning our rope before reaching the actual rappel and being trapped in the canyon? Or were we supposed to use our rope to rappel the drop and pull it through the natural arch just in case we’d need it further down canyon—even though this would mean scarring the sandstone and leaving a blatant trace on the terrain? Ultimately, we elected to backtrack through the canyon, climbing out early and skipping the rappel altogether.

So how strictly exactly should we adhere to Leave No Trace Principles? Is it okay to collect crystals in national parks just like it’s okay to collect sea shells on the beach? Is starting a fire in Coyote Gulch really worse than starting one in the Uintas? When do you pull your rope and scar rock in order to conveniently navigate a canyon? And when do you pull your rope and scar rock in order to survive a canyon?

According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, it’s impossible to leave absolutely no trace of your visit to the outdoors. And while LNT principles are intended to minimize human impacts on natural environments as much as possible, there is no way to leave zero trace. Just because my friend started a fire in Coyote Gulch doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the outdoors—it doesn’t mean he should never be allowed to camp again or that he should start fires wherever he pleases. The whole reason for Leave No Trace is to preserve and protect both natural resources and the quality of recreational experiences. It is meant not only to keep the natural world as pristine as possible for its own sake, but also for its devoted recreators. It’s the golden rule of the outdoors—treat the wild spaces you grace as clean for others as you would want them to remain for yourself. So always carry your Wag Bags, never Bust the Crust, and if it comes down to it When In Doubt, Hike Back Out. But also, obsessive fear of leaving a trace is better than never leaving to explore at all.

c.simon@wasatchmag.com

Photo courtesy of Mia Gallardo

Last modified: June 15, 2017

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