The Big Nasty

On garbage and tolerance in the wilderness.

  • "Soon the Wilderness Act will be 50 years old. It would be nice if the rest of us grew up, too."

    Diane Sylvain

When I went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in 2010 as a wilderness ranger, my friends were curious. What did I do in the woods all day, besides weave garlands and write poetry?

In conversations at potlucks, I learned to skip fancy terms like "assessing resource damage." I was a glorified garbageman, I said. My pickup route? Fire pits big enough to lie down in, full of twisted masses of melted beer cans and polypropylene tarps. Tin cans and oozing batteries stuffed into stream banks, trees garroted with steel baling wire and impaled by 12-inch spikes. Moldy canvas tents, sodden camo jackets, rotten cowboy boots, bent tent poles, broken camp chairs, abandoned sleeping bags, rusted-out sheepherder stoves, miles of baling twine, frying pans, coolers, propane canisters, rebar. Fifty-five-gallon drums.

The really old garbage bothered me less, because I was willing to pardon old-timers' ignorance. After all, even my nature-lover friends seemed unaware of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as "an area of undeveloped land ... retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation ... with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." When it came to the new garbage, however  –  longer-lasting and more toxic  –  I'd think: Some people just don't give a damn. Whatever happened to Lady Bird Johnson and her "Keep America Beautiful" campaign?

Although "burning" aluminum foil remains a universal sin, backpackers generally pick up after themselves. They just reduce vast acreages of lakeshore to hardpan through their sheer numbers. No, the really big messes are produced by horsepackers and hunters, who have the means to pack in a whole lot of stuff, and tend to frequent the same sites year after year. I started giving the worst camps names: Dirty Little Secret, Camp Catastrophe, Tin Can Massacre, Open Sewer, Highline Orgy, Second Little Pig's Tinkertoy Village, Camp Desecration, Shit City. Each name well-deserved.

Early July. I hike up into a high and achingly beautiful basin, where I find a camp with a commode. They brought their own toilet seat? What babies. I fill my trash bag, put the bundle on the seat of the commode, and tie it all up with baling twine. How am I going to carry this thing? I set off down the mountainside through false hellebore and delphinium and lupine glowing green and purple in the late afternoon sun, cumulus clouds occasionally throwing me into shadow as I walk toward the trailhead, crowned with a commode.

August. Exhausted after seven hours at the Not OK Corral, cleaning up hundreds of rusted tin cans and whiskey bottles, dismantling two corrals cobbled together from illegally cut trees, I leave at sunset. Perhaps it's a mistake to clean out these fire pits. I can just hear them: "Hey, Bubba, look! I told you glass and aluminum will burn! Nothing but charcoal left in the fire pit!"

Early September, and the mountains are cold. As I clean a site with terribly hacked trees and 250 feet of 3/8-inch steel cable strung as hitching lines, three horsemen come by. I've known the oldest, amicably, for years. No matter: He sees the green uniform, he sees red. He has nothing but contempt for the Forest Service and, therefore, me. Later, through the small-town grapevine, I learn that he'd taken a bad fall on a washed-out trail. We like our wilderness, but we like it civilized. We want the Forest Service to keep the trails open so we can get to our backcountry campsite and turn it into a Dogpatch.

My last hitch. Dan and I string five pack mules down to the Minam River to pick up garbage I'd cached earlier at The Big Nasty. Someone has added more junk to the pile, knowing we'll pack it out.

I don't know if backcountry travelers are leaving as much trash as they did years ago. After all, the Forest Service keeps cleaning it up, removing the evidence of their misbehavior. But this I do know: 60 mule loads of garbage in one wilderness area is about 59 loads too many. Perhaps it boils down to a simple adult maxim. Clean up after yourself. Soon the Wilderness Act will be 50 years old. It would be nice if the rest of us grew up, too.

We ride the Skyline Trail back to camp under a luminous sunset. The high peaks of the Wallowas fade to purple, and distant city lights seem to give birth to the Milky Way. Riding silently in the darkness, just warm enough in fleece and leather gloves, our knees tender, pasturing the horses back at camp, eating in the dark under the stars, lying down to sleep near the dull stomping of hooves, I think: Dogpatch. I haven't used that name for a campsite yet. But I'm sure I'll get my chance.

Rick Bombaci lives and writes in Wallowa County, Oregon, where he has been picking up after himself since 1980.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
May 27, 2014 04:30 PM
I walk my urban 'hood every morning, picking up trash as I go. One day, a bag's worth, three bags the next. Since I'm somewhat a creature of habit, I tend to walk by houses with recurrent messes day after day. The culprits might rightly be labeled 'habitual offenders'. The very same attitude probably prompts the transient inhabitants of Bombaci's 'Dogpatch' to do the very same thing, habitually offend. But how can we characterize this attitude?

Now, you do know that dogs, and other creatures, mark their turf with pooh, right? Could it be that by cleaning up the trash at 'Dogpatch' campsites, you only encourage the offenders to mark their territory with more 'pooh', in the form of trash?

Not that I would ever expect a conscientious wilderness ranger to do this, but, what do you think would happen if you left additional trash (gathered from other 'Dogpatches') at a trash-marked campsite?
Eric Neilsen
Eric Neilsen
May 27, 2014 06:22 PM
We see it on our river trips too. Leave no trace is easy when you turn a blind eye. Sad, very sad. Our lives are so very easy with bottles of water in little plastic sterile bottles. Pre cooked food only requires boiling water, ... and still polystyrene is everywhere as are plastic bottles from those to lazy to carry the weight of an empty bottle.
Janna Caughron
Janna Caughron Subscriber
May 28, 2014 12:37 AM
One Memorial Day weekend back circa 1980, a group of friends spent the long weekend kayaking various tributaries of the Klamath River. We picked up trash in the campgrounds, along the river, at the put-ins and at the take-outs. It was as if trash had just rained from the sky there seemed to be an overwhelming amount. From the Klamath we journeyed east, to Lava Beds National Monument (way back then). Although there were garbage cans at the entrances and exits and even at the ladders in the lava tubes themselves, we picked up trash in the lava tubes, on the trails and in the campground. Captain Jack would have been crying there was so much trash. Our vacation continued down to Mt. Lassen, where yet again we picked up trash in the campground, before it was covered by the 3 inches of snowfall the night of June 1. We decided to go check out Burney Falls State Park. Picked up trash on the trail down to the falls, and came back to the picnic area for lunch. While waiting for lunch to be laid out, I started picking up trash. Came upon a folded up piece of green paper. Found $100 bill laying on the ground! I still pick up trash, but the rewards have remained pleasing to the soul rather than monetary.
Valerie Heath-Harrison
Valerie Heath-Harrison
May 29, 2014 02:57 PM
Unfortunately, my husband and I pick up trash wherever we go as well. I think people who leave behind their garbage simply don't care. This was well illustrated to me one day in Downtown while I was waiting for a bus to take me home from work. A nicely-dressed woman of around 35 stepped out of a fast-food restaurant, took the lid off and straw out of her drink, and promptly threw them into a dry fountain next to where I was sitting. Not 20 feet away there was a trash can. When I pointed this out to her as politely as I could, "Did you know there's a trash can there?" I was told, "That little bit of stuff won't hurt anything. Mind your own g*damn business."

This was around 20 years ago and I still remember it. Here's a professional woman who didn't care enough about her immediate environment to walk 20 feet to deposit her trash.

It's not ignorance. To paraphrase the author, it's laziness and immaturity, and perhaps entitlement -- someone will clean up after them. And we do clean up after them, because we care. So THANK YOU to all trash collectors out there! You have my utmost and undying gratitude.

Perhaps we need another series of public interest announcements and commercials like what was done in the late '60s and early '70s to raise people's awareness. When I was in junior high we used to go out and pick up trash in the vacant lots nearby as part of the civics curriculum. Whatever happened to such initiatives?
Heather Noble
Heather Noble Subscriber
May 30, 2014 06:23 PM
I pick up aluminum cans every place I go. This spring, before the grass got long, I picked up all the cans I could find along twenty miles of highway in my valley. Did it a mile at a time, which would take an hour or two. It was over 2000 cans, which sold for quite a bit at the junkyard. Do you know how much electricity it takes to manufacture an aluminum can? Our open container laws practically require anyone drinking a beer in a vehicle to throw it out the window.
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Jun 02, 2014 02:55 PM
     As a habitual trash remover, few things make me madder than the constant trashing of everything. State parks, river banks, and public spaces of all kinds are peppered with cigarette butts, little pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, paint chips, etc. These things aren’t merely ugly, but they are toxic as well.
     I want a solution, but haven’t gotten one yet. Law enforcement personnel say it’s too hard to stop, but I haven’t seen an effort such as high-tech surveillance, helicopters, stake outs, undercover agents, and forensic science. They spare no expense to stop more interesting crimes like drug trafficking. Ending littering is still a minority concern, so it gets little effort.
     Litterers seem impervious to education.
     I still pick up trash that blows into my personal landscaping and (semi-)wild places where it might harm innocent plants and animals. But, I refuse to join highway-cleaning projects. Roads are already toxic and unnatural, and the trashers deserve to be surrounded by their trash. If roads and highways get bad enough, then perhaps the tourist industry will demand more enforcement.
     Trash in wilderness is especially egregious. If we let trash build up in popular places, the trashers might simply move to other places and trash those, too. I would favor banning people from wilderness until the trashing stops. Wilderness doesn’t need people. Or, wilderness users could be forbidden to take anything that won’t biodegrade into the wild. Or, an inventory of potential trash can be taken before entry into wilderness; if the items on the inventory list can’t be found upon exit, then stiff fines can be applied.
     If we continue to clean up trashers’ messes, I believe that they will let us – forever. So, picking up others’ trash is no solution.
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
Jun 11, 2014 05:26 PM
I've always been pretty good at not leaving stuff in public space (my own room and car is another matter!) when I took up cigarettes a few years ago I made a point of carrying a Ziploc or Otterbox around to put my butts in. A stupid reason to take up smoking, but there's not good reason to take up smoking!
Have they ever tested to find what classes in society are more likely to leave litter behind?
Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
Jun 11, 2014 05:30 PM
I've always been pretty good about this (though my private spaces are another matter as my wife will tell you! I even took up smoking cigarettes a few years ago partly to prove that I could bag my butts like dog shit and not throw them on the street like so many others (a stupid reason, but there is no good reason to take up smoking)
Have they analyzed whether certain classes and ethnic groups are more likely to litter than others?