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for people who care about the West

Don’t even think about leaving a trace

An outdoorswoman reflects on the myriad kinds of litter she’s encountered in nature.


Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She works with visitors at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Leave No Trace means just that: Travel as though you were being followed by IRS agents, and you don’t want them to ever track you down.

We need to carry it out. All. Of. It. Even though there are objects so beyond the pale that people who don’t think they care about litter — those unfortunates who have never heard of Leave No Trace — are appalled when they see them. But I promise you: This is not a minor offense. Those who leave these items behind are a hissing and a byword to the rest of us. Those items include:


Your own, your animal’s, your toddler’s. Yes, we all have to “go,” but we don’t have to leave it out in the open for everyone to admire. It does not work to hide it under a rock. It certainly does not work to hide it behind a rock. Bury it. Six inches deep, and carry out your poo paper. Your dog’s waste needs to be carried out, too, along with your youngest issue’s diapers.


Or shirts. Or socks. Or bandannas. Whatsoever people use when they are out of poo paper, and their need is dire. They desperately grasp at anything even remotely absorbent. Then they certainly don’t want to touch it again, so it is left behind for the rest of us. One can almost (almost) understand their wishful thinking — the idea that paper will eventually vanish — but a whole T-shirt? Don’t fool yourself.


Why are these even a thing? Plastic is bad enough. But plastic filled with toxic chemicals? These things do not replace flashlights. Is this really a replicable skill? And then leaving them behind to festoon the flora? Negatory.


To reiterate: They are toxic, and they don’t rot. Animals eat them, to their detriment. Also, smoldering butts set fire to things that the rest of us need, like forests.


The only thing I want to hear with a beat is my own heart. External speakers are the second-hand smoke of Natural Quiet. If you cannot stand to be alone with your thoughts for more than five minutes, invest in a pair of ear buds. The rest of us want to listen to the wind, or birdsong, or the gentle susurration of running water. I have already decided that the next time I encounter one of these audibly “sharing” persons, I will start singing at the top of my lungs. I am considering the immortal Sheri Lewis’ “The Song That Never Ends.” Be afraid; be very afraid.  


Particularly the cute, tiny ones that hold 8 ounces of water. Again, why are these a thing? Ten years ago, if I had told people they would pay $5 a gallon for glorified tap water in a bottle that they would use only once and then deposit in the ocean, they would’ve scoffed. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. They are expensive, wasteful, contain BPA, and often have more bacteria than water from the tap. The bottles degrade and get into the food chain. Buy a bleeping canteen and fill it from the faucet. Yes, the canteens will eventually disintegrate, but I have canteens older than my kid. And they are purple and have witty stickers.


These apparently are the newest fad. Some of them are quite adorable, but not on the trail. If you must nick geology specimens from the public lands and adorn them with animal faces or poetry or whatever, keep them on your shelf. Post them on Facebook. Eat them, or bury them with your poop. Just do not leave them on the trail. And rocks with a hashtag on the back? Those are taken straight to the law enforcement rangers.  

Volunteers removed litter from North Spit beach in Coos Bay, Oregon, in 2014.

Of course, many other people besides me care about random litter, too, and some of them do something about it. The Arizona Mountaineering Club comes two or three times a year and rappels down Grand Canyon to pick up discards under popular viewpoints. The Grand Canyon Hikers and Backpackers Association goes down at least two weeks during the year to pick up trash, clean graffiti off rocks, and do projects for the park.  

Staffers at Arizona Public Service often volunteer for a day picking stuff up along the canyon rim, and Grand Canyon Association members do litter pickup and other park-authorized projects before their annual picnic in July. A local group called Greens Grand Canyon South Rim does a litter pickup once a month, mostly on the rim, and there are many other groups that pitch in.  

Every litter bit helps, but as any volunteer can tell you, a week after they leave, butts and poop and water bottles and other detritus are baaaaaaack — and the bending-over job starts all over again.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].