Leave-A-Trace Camping or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

Recently, I read an article about Leave-No-Trace camping.  This article was pointed at members of the American Mountain Men who use horses on their various trips on Federal Land. (I will refer to these lands as Federal lands or the King’s Land, as I no longer believe we can rightly call them Public lands.)  The writer admonished us to follow the Leave-No-Trace policy to the letter or risk having these lands closed to our use. (Toe the line and be a good little citizen or suffer the consequences.)  While it is true that more and more of the King’s lands are being closed to our use, I think the problem lies at a deeper, darker level than not following the Leave-No-Trace program. 

It seems to me, we are living in a Police State.  Many of the Police and Media take the stand that all citizens are guilty of something and just haven’t gotten caught, yet.  They sure have an “US vs. THEM” mentality.  As the older law enforcement personnel retire, the younger replacements seem to have very little respect for their employers. (I.e. The local citizens.)  The last time I called our local county Sheriff to send a Deputy to my place regarding trespassers, the Deputy refused to recognize my right, as caretaker of my neighbor’s property, to expel trespassers and have them ticketed.  When they crossed onto my land on their way back to their car, he agreed he would have to ticket them.

There is a movement to make everyone who lives in rural America move into a city or a town.  It doesn’t matter that you enjoy living in a rural area and despise the idea of living in town.  Big Brother knows best.  I believe this is called something like Amendment 21 in the United Nations.  Many years ago someone told me the ideal population for North America would be 400,000 hunter/gatherers.  Now that in itself doesn’t bother me; as long as I’m one of the hunter/gatherers.  Hunting and gathering has been my lifestyle since I was a young man.  The problem comes in who gets to say who stays and who goes.  Therein lies the rub. Big Brother knows best. 

The laws in this country are so many, so convoluted and so over lapping it has become almost impossible to be a law abiding citizen.  A few years ago, I had a conversation with our local Game Warden.  He is one of these older law enforcement men I mentioned earlier.  I told him I thought the game laws here were so confusing and difficult to follow that I imagined he could ticket every hunter and fisherman he stopped.  With a sad look on his face he replied “I try not to do that”.  I was relieved to hear that.  I imagine a younger, gung-ho officer won’t be quite so considerate.

The following is an excerpt from an editorial entitled: “Leave-A-Trace”.

I picked up the local United States Forest Service map. The admonition to Leave-No-Trace (LNT) was on the first fold. The Service encourages visitors to camp 200 feet from lakes or streams. “For cooking and warmth, camp stoves are preferable…”

Motorized recreationists are asked to Tread Lightly rather than Leave-No-Trace.

I had a booth at an outdoor show. A small army of BLM and Forest Service employees spent a day and a half establishing an extensive information display nearby. The primary topic: campfire. The agencies had multiple displays encouraging the use of stoves, fire pans and fire blankets, requests to carry out ash, replant sod, and disperse fire rings and so on. Later, I was visiting the adjacent National Forest. A group of campers with trucks and trailers were camping less than twenty feet from a beautiful river. Adults were sitting around a large fire while their children ran around on motorcycles in a marshy area. A couple of US Forest Service trucks passed with the occupants waving cheerfully to the campers.

Do federal land management agencies walk their talk? You visit a half- dozen campgrounds on a national forest and they are all immediately adjacent to a lake, stream or river and then the agency tells you not to camp within 200 feet of water. Who would take that kind of educational advice seriously? You note the forest road you are driving along was constructed by bulldozing thousands of tons of fill into the adjacent river or stream. If government doesn’t respect watershed conservation, how can they expect it of the public?

After the long weekend I visited another informal camp area on the same river and found dirty diapers, old tires, clothing, a double bed and mattress, sofa, carpet, broken toys. I filled the back of a pickup truck twice and made trips to the nearest landfill. Where was the army of FS employees? (I have cleaned up campsites like this many times as well.)

I took a summer long canoe trip from the Canadian Rocky Mountains to Hudson Bay and camped at several traditional Indian campsites. None of them were 200 feet from a lake or river. Natives have been camping directly on the shores of lakes and rivers for thousands of years. Somehow, the continent survived until white folks got here.

I was hiking in the beautiful granite high country of California, stopped near an exquisite lake and noticed that the large flat stone in front of me had been a camping spot for hikers the night before. They had done a consummate job of Leaving-No-Trace. I found cut fir boughs, used to sweep the entire area, back in the brush. On close inspection, it was clear significant damage had been inflicted on the lichens living on the large flat stone by the fir boughs employed to minimize the appearance of use.

Published over a half century ago, A Sand County Almanac asked Americans to adopt a national conservation ethic. Sadly, we are further away from that goal today than ever before.

All recreation changes the environment. Leaving-No-Trace isn’t a realistic goal. The outdoor use ethic, whether front country or backcountry, should be called the Leave-A-Trace campaign (as opposed to leaving a mess). Emphasis added.

Several years ago, I read an article by a hiker encouraging backpackers to take refuge in a tent in the evening and read a book rather than sit around an environmentally destructive campfire. Let’s face it, that kind of advice is an invitation to stay home. Your choice, relax in the comfort of your E-Z lounger with an electric bulb illuminating your page or huddle up in a tent reading by flashlight or miniature lantern.

My favorite anti-campfire article was by a river runner who insisted campfires are always evil and out of place. He related how he “had to” get down on his hands and knees with tweezers and pick up bits of charcoal from his camping beach. The poor city slicker apparently didn’t realize fire is a natural part of the environment he was in and every beach along the river does have and has had charcoal in it centuries before a white person ever set foot in the watershed.

In their 1979 text, Backwoods Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman wrote, “In making the transition to the compact, portable gas stove, we’ve found we don’t really miss that old campfire – in fact, we wouldn’t want one now. We prefer to get along with no smoke in our eyes, no soot on our pots, no scouring the forest for dead wood, no set-up and break-down time, no nighttime beacon of blazing light that makes the stars hard to see and scares off animal life.”

It is true modern gadgets can minimize camping chores. Of course, one can minimize camping chores completely by staying home or “camping” at a resort or in an RV – exactly what outdoor recreation data tells us more and more Americans are doing. Part of the charm of camping is camp chores. Story- telling and humor were birthed around a campfire. Many American conservation campaigns were launched around the campfire. Campfires were security in an era when things that went bump in the night might eat you and in several areas that is becoming true again. Backwoods Ethics is, unfortunately, too much an essay against backcountry camping and the idea of wildness.

Throughout most of North America periodic wildfire is natural. Vigorous fire suppression has substantially altered the environment. There is more dead and down material in forest environments today than ever before. The buildup of fuels constitutes a major threat to watersheds, fish and wildlife. Campfires can’t solve this problem, but a little help is better than nothing. People who think campfires are hostile to the environment are mostly wrong and ignorant.


The Wilderness Act identifies three essential criteria for formal Wilderness classification: size, substantial naturalness (substantial, not pristine naturalness) and the ability of the land to provide solitude and, or, primitive and unconfined recreation. When land management agencies, special interest groups, outdoor gear promoters, writers and armchair pundits tell you to never go into the wilderness alone and take modern gear (such as stoves) to facilitate Leaving-No-Trace, they are encouraging you to violate the spirit of the Wilderness Act.

Primitive recreation isn’t about leaving only footprints, taking only pictures and killing only time. Primitive recreation is precisely about catching a wild trout and frying it over an open campfire, cooking a grouse on a spit, spending your evening around a magical and spiritual campfire like thousands of generations of wilderness users before you. Primitive recreation is not about heating a little water over a mechanical stove and pouring it into a foil bag of instant processed goop, then heading off to your plastic tent to huddle up with a book illuminated by your lantern. If that’s how you like to camp, more power to you but, you shouldn’t try to impose that lifestyle on anyone else.

The ability to build a campfire and cook real food over it is the definition of real camping and the essence of woodcraft.

For thousands of generations humans were hunters and gathers, and campfire builders. Hostility toward these elemental human characteristics makes no more sense than hostility toward language and our tool using opposable thumbs.

Throughout much of the West camping opportunities are limited. It is a good idea to get away from water and hunt up your own isolated spot off the beaten track. However, in many canyons and steep mountainous country the only option is a flat near a river, stream or lake. You are not going to destroy the environment by putting your sleeping bag on the ground. Did you feel guilty driving to the trailhead? Virtually every facet of your life involves greater environmental impact than camping near a river or lake.

The popularity of Leave-No-Trace, though, is largely related to the emphasis placed on aesthetics rather than real environmental impacts. You don’t have to have qualifications to chime in on aesthetics, so people with no environmental education or training have perpetrated and promoted mythology. At the extreme, Leave-No-Trace posits a world where man and nature never meet. Some LNT extremists are anti-hunting and fishing and discourage even walking or sleeping on the natural earth. They would have you feel guilty if you step off the constructed trail, pick a huckleberry or sleep on the ground rather than in a hammock. That is the problem with the title LEAVE-NO-TRACE.  The faithful take it literally and see anyone not endeavoring to leave NO trace as living in sin.

I cannot disagree with his take on what is happening in our National Forests.  The National Forest Service is making it harder and harder to host an organized event on the King’s lands.  It seems each district has set up a fiefdom and if you do anything that is politically incorrect such as shooting, hunting or, God forbid, dig a pit toilet or cut some firewood, you are not permitted to enter upon the land.

We have come so far down the path of a totalitarian socialist government that I doubt we can make the changes needed to bring the management of federal lands back to a common sense level.  We would need to fire all of the people from the 60’s and 70’s who were trained in the school of preservation instead of good old common sense conservation.

We have allowed the powers of government to grow out of control and we will not get the genie back into the bottle.  Enjoy the King’s lands while you can, for one day they will be reserved only for the special few who are approved by the King!

 In the August 2012 issue of Harding’s Magazine Fur-Fish-Game is a letter from Joe Commerford of Westcliffe, CO.  He writes:  The letter in the June issue criticizing Judd Cooney for calling out the U.S. Forest Service for closing forest roads in the winter, had it half right.  I agree that the forest service personnel are not lazy.  After all, they are busy erecting steel gates, posting restriction signs, and generally changing the way public land may be used by the public.  They are working tirelessly to achieve their goal – putting forestland under a bubble.  This year, they lock gates in the winter, even though the ground is frozen and the “resource” cannot be damaged.  Twenty years from now, those gates will be locked in summer, too.  As for the idea that closing roads to hunters protects vulnerable elk, the only reason those elk are there is because of the support hunters give to conservation.  And the Service doesn’t manage “free” hunting, either.  Has the letter writer not heard of taxes?  Not only do we pay for this so-called management, our taxes also pay for the gates that are locking us and our children off of OUR public land.  I pack elk out of the mountains on my back most years, but I know other people need those roads: the disabled, the elderly, etc.  Wake up and get involved before you, too, are “designated” off of public land. 

Well said, Joe!


About Gabe the Shootist

I am retired from public service, a trained gunsmith, pump mechanic, an old pipeliner, passable electrician, carpenter, truck driver, amateur blacksmith, proof reader, experienced hunter, shooter, reloader, avid canoeist, Renaissance man, jack of all trades, all around good guy (with the caveat: I won't be insulted, lied to or laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them.).
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