In my checkered past, I was a wilderness ranger in Alaska and Idaho. This, mostly, is the absolute best job there is. You get paid (not very much) to camp and hike in the wilderness. What could be better? (I’ve conveniently forgotten the chopping of downed trees with a pulaski, though I was in the best shape of my life because of those immense, rock-hard trees.) There were just some things that I could not understand, however, about how people used the wilderness. Like the following:
1. Hey! Let’s put all of our bottles and cans in the fire ring and try to burn them! Oh yeah, and our tin foil too! Oops, it didn’t burn. Oh well, the fire ring fairy will be along soon. (I was. With garbage bags and a shovel. Not in a good mood either.)
2. These boots? Gave me blisters. This hammock? Holes. Tent? It leaks. I’m leaving it here! Maybe the next person will use it! (Uh huh. My pack once topped eighty pounds carrying out all this crap. And speaking of…
3. Dang, Nature is calling! I know! I’ll step five feet from this river and take a dump. Bury it? I don’t have anything to dig with. I’ll just use tons of TP and put this rock over it. I’m sure nobody will ever see it! (The absolute worst thing ever. And so many people do it. Seriously? How hard it is it to dig a hole?)
4. This trail sucks! I want to get home! I’m just going to bomb down the mountain cutting switchbacks! Whoo Hoo! (Now, I kind of get this, because trail builders looooove switchbacks. It’s annoying. But necessary. Go back after people have cut them and see the erosion it causes.)
5. I’m just gonna tie my horse right here in this here campsite, to a tree. No problem! (Um, nobody wants to camp in horse manure, and horses get bored just like people. Check out where people have tied them to trees and you will see exposed roots and eroded soil. Trees eventually die from this.)
6. I don’t like this fire ring, I’m gonna build one just a few feet away. Right under this tree! With my linebacker friends to bring in enormous rocks to line it! (I once scattered 200 rocks from one fire ring. I also dismantled fire rings that were in meadows. I also put out many fires that started from campfires in bad places.)
7. PAAARTAY! I’m gonna play my music and yell and scream and throw big rocks in the lake! People over there camping? Who cares! They can move if they don’t like it! (Do I really need to say anything about this?)
These are just a few of the sins I discovered, over and over. I freely admit that it was most likely 5% of the visitors who caused 95% of the problem. But it’s those people who caused my agency to come down hard on everybody, talking about quotas and group size limits and restrictions. Which isn’t fair to anyone, but a sign of a few people messing it up for everyone.
There really isn’t any way to stop them, not really. I toted a ticket book all those summers, but rarely did I ever find anyone committing the crimes. I had thousands of acres to patrol. The chances of being in the right place at the wrong time hardly ever happened. When it did, we could take two options: gently educate, or throw the book at them. I usually took option 1, seeing as I had to camp out in the same wilderness with them. (“Hide your camp,” we were advised). And generally, I found that the people who did the bad things were just…kind of…dumb. Some of them really didn’t know that using soap in the lake wasn’t the best thing for the fish and the amphibians. Some had no idea that a fire could smolder in a ring for days and worm its way out when the conditions were right.
Of course, there’s always the unrepentant ones, who knew and just didn’t care. The ones who expected a fairy to come clean up after them. Sadly, as budgets fall, there are very few wilderness rangers out there anymore.
I am all for more people in the wilderness if it means people who will love it and protect it. But some people