Leaving no trace

Keeping campsites clean is not just for aesthetics, but also to protect wildlife from eating harmful waste

Posted: Sunday, November 20, 2005

One of the things Harry Tullis loves about living in Southeast Alaska is the nearby wilderness, he said last week before leaving for a deer hunting trip on Admiralty Island.

What the program director for the U.S. Forest Service says he doesn't like is cleaning up other people's messes.

"All too often my hunting trips begin with frustration as I step into the woods only to discover a campsite that's been left a complete mess by a previous group," he said.

Sometimes the site is destroyed, if a fire wasn't extinguished properly, he said. But it's bad enough to find a site strewn with garbage. There can be tattered tarps and plastic Visqueen in trees, where limbs are sometimes chopped and scarred. People leave behind toilet paper and other trash.

It isn't simply a question of aesthetics or the fact that Tullis has had to clean up such messes as part of his job, he said.

"Birds eat plastic that disrupts their digestive systems," he explained. "Live trees that are scarred by burns or other damage are open to disease."

Even when he's taking time off to hunt, "I usually clean things up rather than move to another site," he said. "When I leave, you'd never know I was there."

It's the ethics of Leave No Trace, a national educational initiative started by federal land management agencies in the early 1990s to educate hikers, campers and hunters on how to enjoy their wilderness areas in a way that will ensure others will be able to enjoy a wilderness experience.

Leaving no trace isn't even a matter of treading lightly.

After he returned late last week, Tullis said his party's campsite was clean, although he could tell it had been used within the last 10 to 20 years he said, because there was a fire ring, but it was covered with twigs and natural forest debris.

Closer inspection revealed the campsite may have been used more in the past. A tree showed signs that it had once been cut for its sap, a fire-igniting aid long ago.

"A lot of the ideal campsites have been used, sometimes for hundreds, if not thousands of years," Tullis said, adding that archaeological significance contributes to the importance of hunters not to trash them.

Using them responsibly today will ensure such popular spots can be used in the future, he added.

Leaving no trace doesn't mean limiting enjoyment of the wilderness, Tullis said. He had a successful trip, getting two deer himself.

"We could have filled our tags," he said. "We didn't shoot everything we saw."

On his recent trip, his party didn't even have a fire, using a stove instead. A tarp covered the campsite and its tents, but the tarp was tied with slip knots so it could be taken down easily.

It's certainly easier in a wilderness area near the capital of Alaska than it is in a wilderness area near the more heavily and densely populated capital of Arizona, he said.

A hunting party packing supplies in for a hunting or camping trip to an island can pack supplies out, he said. The empty bottles and cans aren't as heavy, he added.

The base of a tree that provides good cover for a campsite may seem like a good place to build a fire, but people should be careful about damaging living trees.

"I've seen places where people built fire at the base of a 20-foot spruce," he said.

Tullis said he also doesn't like to see nails and spikes that can leave permanent damage to trees. Tarps covering campsites can be held up with knots that can be easily untied so there aren't even any remnants of cord in branches.

And while Tullis said he doesn't like to see the occasional candy wrappers in the forest - and will pick them up and put them in a pocket when he sees them - the level of garbage at trashed campsites can be much worse, he said.

He recalled one on Glass Peninsula on Admiralty Island.

"We pulled two boatloads of garbage out of there," he said. "There was 200, 300 pounds of garbage. They cut 20 or 30 trees."

He said that camp may have been used by hunters who returned to the spot for several years in a row. It's a big wilderness, and the Forest Service may not become aware of a trashed site right away.

The agency also sometimes comes across "trespass cabins," Tullis said. The illegally built structures are often camouflaged by the people who have set up their own little "personal getaway" in the wilderness.

"The way the Forest Service looks at it, that land does not belong to you," Tullis said.

The Admiralty Island wilderness got its designation in 1980, and in the late 1980s and early '90s "we probably tore down 25 (trespass cabins). We're getting fewer and fewer."

Tullis said he believes most hunters act responsibly, but he doesn't like to see any hunters do things that will reflect badly on hunters in general. "Statistics show that about 10 percent of U.S. citizens are avid hunters and 10 percent are avid anti-hunters," he said.

The way hunters behave can influence the 80 percent without strong opinions on the subject.

"Hunting responsibly preserves our wild lands and wilderness areas to be enjoyed by all who follow."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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