Responsible Camping, Driving on Public Lands is More Important than Ever
In recent years, access on public lands – both of the motorized and non-motorized variety – has become a hot button political issue in certain segments of the country. Particularly in those areas where the U.S. Forest Service manages the land, rules and regulations governing recreation such as camping, hiking and off-roading have changed.
In some cases these new travel management policies have been beneficial to the recreation community. In other instances, roads have been closed or obliterated, and areas that once were prime camping areas have been rendered inaccessible, much to the chagrin of responsible recreational advocates.
There are a number of justifications provided by public land managers for these restrictions, but a common theme is that outdoor recreation seekers are having a negative influence on wildlife and the ecosystem. And while I think this impact is often overstated, I must admit that I’ve seen some pretty irresponsible behavior in my many years in the woods.
Whether it is hikers who litter the trail with garbage, campers who don’t take pains to ensure their campfires are out cold, or ATV riders leaving tire tracks in streambeds, these kinds of irresponsible practices paint all outdoor enthusiasts with a broad and negative brush.
Therefore it is crucial that the rest of us – the vast majority, in my opinion – take it upon ourselves to employ responsible practices and do what we can to educate those that don’t seem to understand the importance of incorporating Tread Lightly principles into their outdoor recreation.
Naturally, given that automobiles harness so much power, their potential to wreak havoc on the ecosystem is tremendous when they are in the wrong hands. So whether you are driving into the hills for a weekend of camping in your 4×4 vehicle, or scooting around the mountains on your ATVs, here are some tips on responsible driving:
• Stay on designated roads and trails. Significant ecological damage is done when you blaze a new trail, and these rogue routes are often documented to show the harmful impacts off-road drivers have on the environment. Don’t give the access restriction proponents more ammunition to use against us.
• Similarly, when on a designated ATV trail, be careful not to unnecessarily widen the path. Should you come to an obstacle, see if you can go over it, rather than creating a new path around it.
• Don’t cross streams and waterways except for at designated crossings. Significant ecological damage can be caused by plowing your vehicle through streams.
• Be aware of areas that are especially sensitive like riparian areas that consist of meadows, wetlands, streams and lakeshores. Make sure that you have educated yourself on any local restrictions or any areas of particular concern before you head up into the forest. Your local ranger district will be happy to provide you with all you need to know about your camping trip (maps, etc).
• Wash your ATV or other off-highway vehicle before and after your use. This helps to mitigate the risk of the spread of invasive species.
Away from the vehicle, it remains important to follow responsible camping principles. Some of these are so mind-numbingly obvious that you have to be a total ninny not to follow them, but sadly it appears that the woods are filled with these kinds of nincompoops.
• For gosh sakes, don’t leave a campfire unattended and make sure it is out cold before you leave. It isn’t good enough to toss a little dirt on it. Before you can leave a campfire, you need to be able to stick your hands into the middle of the firepit and feel no heat whatsoever. It’s amazing how many preventable forest fires turn into catastrophic blazes each year.
• Pack out EVERYTHING you pack in. This includes trash. I’m sure many of you have been disgusted to find a once pristine campsite littered with beer cans, cigarette butts and other refuse. Make sure that you aren’t contributing to that sort of behavior. Better yet, bring along some extra trash bags and get some good karma by picking up the trash that the fools left behind.
• As far as human waste goes, the best practice is to bring a portable latrine and pack out your waste with you. If this is not possible, you need to make sure that you bury your waste at least eight inches deep and make sure that you are at least 200 feet away from any streams or waterways.
And finally, make sure that you are not only following responsible practices, but that you are also talking about them with others and setting the right example. Together we can ensure that our access to the outdoor splendors found on our public lands will continue for generations to come.
Jack Payton is a freelance writer specializing in automotive and outdoor issues. He is a tireless advocate for responsible off-roading practices and is active in the Tread Lightly movement.
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