And you thought cows were bad...

  • Sketch of nail in a "sad" tree

    Greg Siple
  • Sketch of a roll of toilet paper

    Greg Siple

I pull apart the sooty rocks, exposing wads of foil, blobs of heated plastic and paper plates. The trash goes in my yellow Woodsy the Owl bag; the ash I scatter in the bushes. This soggy alpine meadow here in Idaho offers no good burial sites for a summer's accumulation of cinders, and I do not like digging up fragile plants.

It is not in my job description, but sure enough I find toilet paper-plastered mounds of human waste among the stunted whitebark pines bordering the campsite. In the huckleberry bushes are used tampons but no dirty diapers or crusty condoms this time. I make a mental note to check the supply of little plastic trowels I provide to campers at the trailhead.

After I bury the feces and other items, I get out my checklist for LAC, which stands for Limits of Acceptable Change. These guidelines help us evaluate and manage changes in recreation use. In the 1964 Wilderness Act, Congress set aside land with exceptional "scientific, educational, scenic or historical value" to preserve as wilderness. These chunks (at least 5,000 acres each) safeguard what Congress recognized as the wilderness areas' "primeval character" and "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." LAC monitoring and recreation management are how we maintain these legal wilderness standards and ensure, as the legislation puts it, that "man and his own works (do not) dominate the landscape."

The most useful indicator of human impact is the size of disturbed or denuded areas, from campsites to picnic spots. Soil deprived of cover gets worn away by pedestrians and horses, and then tree roots become exposed, which can be fatal to trees. I measure the campsite. Then I count exposed roots.

Next, I examine the trees. People maim, scar and wound trees, most commonly by carving their initials and the year into the bark. I have seen elaborate graffiti in the wilderness. Forest Service wildlife technicians on one district carved an intricate 24-inch spotted owl onto an old-growth tree along with their crew name and year. Ironic in a group commissioned to protect the old-growth ecosystem.

Early-day wilderness users hammered nails and spikes into the trees around campsites; but modern campers also pound hardware into trees to suspend clothing, erect horse hitches and secure support lines for heavy canvas tents. I confess to hanging my sweaty clothes on the rusty nails before pulling them out.

It's illegal to cut any parts of live plants on public land (outside of commercial timber cuts), but campers seem helpless under the urge to feed the voracious campfire god. Dead wood near popular campsites gets scarce in a hurry, so fire worshippers resort to tree dismemberment and to burning smoky, green wood.

After counting armless trees, I count stumps. One summer after several young saplings were brutally hacked to stubs at a popular lake, I posted trailhead signs - unsubtle depictions of high mountain lakes completely surrounded by stumps and mangled trees - imploring people not to cut down the trees.

Fire scars are further evidence of human impact. I have seen campsites with monstrous burning facilities that resemble chimneys or sacrificial altars. Some sites have multiple fireplaces. Where fires have been built against a boulder or rock wall, the rock surface is charred for a lifetime. The ranger code assumes that a single, simple fire ring in each campsite should be enough to satisfy fire enthusiasts.

"Campsite improvements" - that value-laden terminology - comes from the original Wilderness Act. In it, wilderness is defined as "an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation" (emphasis added).

The simplest "improvement" is what we call a tent pad, a plot of ground that has been devegetated and flattened for a sleeping area. Sometimes the tent pad has been excavated with a shovel (an item most wilderness users no longer haul into the woods), and sometimes a trench is dug around the tent space to drain rain. Occasionally I run into stacks of green boughs that evidently served as (illegal) bedding.

When I find homemade wooden tables, chairs, rafts and hitching posts, I dismantle them as best I can and disperse the pieces of wood. The instinct to homestead is still with us but must be curbed in meadows and lake basins that host a hundred hikers a day on summer holiday weekends.

Trash is the most pervasive human evidence. Small litter includes twist ties, scraps of aluminum foil, candy wrappers and mysterious, tiny blue-plastic circles. And, of course, cigarette butts, whose substantial biomass can quickly become oppressive to a wilderness ranger. Large litter ranges from old boots to, yes, wood stoves.

Hunting camps tend to be garbage magnets. OK: temperatures drop in the fall, and I understand the argument for wood stoves. But card tables, folding chairs, sleeping cots, enormous canvas tents, stacks of magazines and paper plates, boxes of plastic eating utensils and the kitchen sink? With the additional burden of the kill, hunters often can't pack out what they packed in - even with horses and mules.

A special case concerning garbage involves hunter caches. It is illegal to leave equipment or other materials in the wilderness for more than 14 days at a time; in fact, without special permission, you can't establish camp permanently anywhere on public land. Nevertheless, hunters have cached supplies months in advance of the season - and been fined thousands of dollars. A few hunters hire helicopters to drop supplies, but barring special acts of Congress, aircraft are not permitted to land in the wilderness nor fly within a quarter mile of the ground.

One of the filthier chores of a wilderness ranger is digging new backcountry toilet pits. When the old one fills, you must find a suitable place to dig a new hole at least three feet deep and two feet wide. Hard soil and lots of rocks and tree roots can make the going difficult. Picking up the old toilet throne, you inevitably get your hands underneath the foul contraption, moving it to its new home. The lawyers, doctors and engineers I meet on the trail who say they envy my peaceful outdoor profession don't know the half of it.

Public contact is an important responsibility of a wilderness ranger. We try to educate visitors about low-impact or no-trace camping techniques in the hope that most of the damage we monitor might be prevented. Long, lone stints in the wilderness make me especially eager for this social part of the job.

I was camped in an old fire lookout tower several years ago, when the first bow hunters I ever saw gave me a fright. Smeared in blackface and wrapped in camouflage clothing, the two figures who appeared in the ranger station window late one evening looked like psychopathic killers.

I was better prepared to handle the solitary bow hunter I met, in late September, when the high country is nearly deserted. Instead of combat gear, he was dressed as Tarzan. His entire wardrobe was a frayed camouflage-wrap loin cloth, and his long hair was braided with leather ties and wooden toggles. During my initial shock at human presence - and a primordial jungle warrior, at that - I rapidly weighed my scant defense options. A split second later I decided that he was safe and invited him into the office.

Tarzan asked about elk sign or sightings, but I'd seen nothing. About an hour after he left, an elk came to share my grassy knoll. He bugled all night.

My most troubling non-human encounter involved a bear. I had adopted the questionable habit of using my food bag as a pillow: I was tired of looking for good trees from which to hang my food, tired of the gnawed cellophane and partially eaten crackers left from rodent break-ins.

During a hot, dry stretch of mid-summer, I woke to see a large dark shadow climbing over the rocks toward me. Without the false security of a tent, I felt awfully vulnerable; then I remembered my plan of action: I started yelling in a low voice; startled by my show of boldness, the bear dropped down over the hillside. I took action too and buried my pillow in a rock pile a hundred yards away. My breakfast was granola in a rodent-perforated plastic bag, but my limbs were intact.

The end of ranger season is wrenching. I hate to leave the high country, and one project remains. To keep motorbikers from being tempted to enter the wilderness illegally, we build dirt-bike trails for motorized recreation outside the wilderness, installing 60-pound cement blocks in the tread for reinforcement, and burying those blocks along every inch of the trail. In some places we accentuate dips and bumps to satisfy the motorbiker's desire for high-speed thrills.

We do all this work because motorized recreation wreaks far greater damage to wilderness than hikers or horses. Compared to that, a Snickers bar wrapping floating down a mountain stream seems minor - the matter of a moment.

Mindy Sandler is an English instructor at the University of Idaho. Her ranger days were spent in the Cascades and the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho.

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