When does our garbage become archaeology?

  A rusted cooking pot, an old stove top, bits of china and pottery. Exploring in the woods around a backcountry chalet in Montana’s Glacier National Park, we poked through the remains of garbage--everything from glass chips to bed springs. We prodded these remnants of the past: Historic rubbish.

Knowing the National Park Service classifies these dumpsites as archaeological, we carefully let our findings be. But our search posed questions: When does garbage become historic and thereby protected? What separates junk left to rot and historic treasures in our national parks and wilderness areas?

Certainly, we prize broken bits of pottery left from the Anasazis of 800 or so years ago in our southwestern sanctuaries, because their shards provide clues to our ancient cultural history. And we place cherished recent architectural creations — Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn built in 1916; Grand Canyon Lodge, built in 1927-28; and Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, completed in 1932 — on the Register of National Historic Landmarks.

But in national parks and wilderness areas where early 20th century ethics allowed garbage to be dumped in a pile and galvanized phone wires to crisscross the mountains, the line between historic refuse and just plain trash blurs.

"Something could have been 20 years old when it broke, then got tossed out," mused Chris Burke, my fellow dump-site junkie. "With passing years, it becomes archaeology."

According to Lon Johnson, one of Glacier National Park’s architectural and historical officers, "The rule of thumb is 50 years." But just because something is old, he said, doesn’t mean it must be protected. Significance and integrity are also vital.

But what about recent discards from the 20th century? In dumpsites such as those around Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park, garbage lingered until it became history. A wagon wheel from chalet construction in 1914 rests alongside shattered plates chucked out in the late 1960s.

In Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, galvanized wire hangs between live trees, remnants of a U.S. Forest Service phone line used along the Mail Trail between Boulder and Escalante. Discontinued from use in 1955, the wire was never removed. Today, with few cairns and minimal trail markings, several miles of rusted wire strung between trees and snaking through sagebrush serve as a trail finder for hikers braving the challenges of the slickrock traverse. Now, the Mail Trail with its wire has been nominated to the National Registry of Historic Places.

Although letting garbage become history rather than cleaning it up is less costly, that act now collides with our current Leave No Trace ethic. Discarded debris is still garbage. And our pristine wilderness parks are littered with marks of human cultural history, recent as well as ancient.

While "minimum impact" concepts developed in the 1970s and ‘80s, Leave No Trace wilderness ethics did not slide into our national consciousness until the 1990s. This leaves a chunk of years in limbo, where wilderness discards can either be cleaned up or left to become archaeology.

Yet, cleaning up these dumpsites removes a window into more recent human history. Collections of castoff trash hide clues to how hikers behaved in the backcountry in the 1940s and how they interacted with the environment in the ‘60s, just on the cusp of the "50 year" benchmark.

A friend from Idaho recently told me of a dilemma in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. This summer, trail crew workers assessing backcountry trail status stumbled across old fire camps from the 1950s and ‘60s, complete with tin can dump sites. Their quandary? Whether to clean up the sites or leave them, considering they would reach the magical historic age within a couple years.

Uniquely, national parks and monuments fall in a jurisdictional quagmire. Our parks mandate protection, making collection of anything illegal. I broke the law picking up a corroded horseshoe in Escalante. Historical remnants left in national parks--including scraps of wire and cattle corrals--are protected by virtue of the fact that they are in the park. Could it be that even the ubiquitous plastic water bottles lost along the trail will see future protection?

This all reminds me that at first glance our national parks seem to be bastions of unspoiled wilderness, while in reality, our cultural leavings may lie just out of sight, five feet off a trail. Perhaps our task is simply ensuring that our energy bar wrappers and Ziplocs don’t become future "archaeology" as we walk in the wilds.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Whitefish, Montana.

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].

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