‘Organic’ litter is not copacetic

Even orange peels be damned — don’t toss your food on the trail.

 

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She hikes and works in the Grand Canyon.


As I clambered my way up the trail recently, I passed two languishing young women. One of them regarded her sandwich with distaste. “I am going to toss this. I know there is a squirrel who will appreciate it.”

I cautioned, “We ask people not to feed the wildlife.” As I walked off, one of them opined: “What does she know? She’s hiking in a skirt!”

My sartorial preferences in trail wear aside, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that “organic” litter is copacetic. It will either evaporate into biodegradable thin air or somehow be devoured.

Does it vanish? At an outdoor education center, we set up a few experiments. We built a cage of chicken wire wide enough to allow small animals ingress and egress but small enough to keep items secure from wind. Therein we placed an apple core, a banana peel, orange peels, chewing gum and tissue paper. After six months, the orange peels had dried out, the banana peel was a distasteful black, and the tissue had collapsed into an inert mass. Nothing had rotted or been eaten.   

What about interment? We commandeered a terrarium and entombed the same items, some in sand, some in organic soil. Six months later, everything was still recognizable.

An orange peel rots (slowly) on a trail.

Indeed, the venerable Leave No Trace organization has done experiments more sophisticated than mine. Banana peels can take up to two years to decompose, while orange peels can linger up to six months. In an arid environment, orange peels, rather like King Tut’s mummy, will last indefinitely. Citrus contains a natural insecticide: Even the ants won’t touch orange peels. And chewing gum contains rubber, so it won’t rot.

But will not the timid woodland creatures enjoy my discards? Certainly at any rest stop on the trail, one is likely to see obese rodents waddling up and professing hunger.

But think about it: Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? We do not. So why would a squirrel? An apple core is edible, certainly, but if it is not part of the animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food. Anyone who has experienced so-called “traveler’s tummy” from a change in water or cuisine while vacationing can attest to this. Unless one is hiking through an apple orchard, apple cores are not a part of the local ecosystem.

Realistically, does a humble apple core really cause that much damage? Our national parks are enjoying a plethora of visitation. Grand Canyon welcomes 6 million people a year. It is estimated that 10 percent of visitors hike approximately a mile below the rim. Let us be generous and assume that 90 percent of these sightseers will carry out their trash. But that, for our purposes, presupposes that the remainder will toss, say, something like an apple core. That’s 60,000 apple cores. We would be knee-deep in the execrable things.

So-called “empty calories,” such as those that come from white bread, processed foods and sugar, are not good for us. Why should they be good for wildlife? Animals need some fat to survive winter, but excess adipose tissue is just as bad for them as it is for us. At Alaska’s Denali National Park, there are signs asking people not to feed the marmots so they don’t get too portly to escape from the grizzlies. (Meanwhile, of course, the grizzlies are watching, muttering, “Go ahead, feed them, already!”)

Desert animals have a special difficulty. Many of these critters have no ready source of water: They get moisture from the food they eat. They cannot flush salt from their bodies, and excess salt will kill them.

Animals habituated to human food and, by association, humans, quickly become nuisances. Bears are the extreme example: They will rip off a car door to get at food. Smaller animals tear into packs and tents. Rodents carry hantavirus, rabies and tetanus. The ticks and fleas that inhabit their fur transport Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, relapsing fever and plague. I don’t about you, but I don’t want them cuddling up to me.

Animals that are fed by humans will not collect and store enough food for winter. When hiking season is over and the tourists leave, the animals face starvation.

The bottom line is, before we got here, the faunae did just fine on nuts, berries and occasionally each other. They do not need us.

Would the two young women who were tossing that sandwich have done so in their own living room? Certainly not. Then again, considering what my son’s college dorm room looked like, perhaps I should not be so sure.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.