The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, April 16, 2012

Understanding Leave No Trace: Is It Ever Acceptable to Not Follow LNT?

Spending many school years outside of Wisconsin has made me increasingly grateful for its heritage of wilderness and conservation. Silent sports enthusiasts enjoy ample public land, an attentive and dedicated Department of Natural Resources staff, and a large community of similar-minded people.

As a result, camping and backpacking are particularly popular in Wisconsin, making an ethic of sustainable wilderness practice essential.

The most widely known authority on such an ethic is the Leave No Trace organization, which raises awareness of the environmental footprint of outdoors pursuits and seeks to reduce environmental impact through advocacy and education.

LNT is best known for its seven principles:



· Plan ahead and prepare

· Travel and camp on durable surfaces

· Dispose of waste properly

· Leave what you find

· Minimize campfire impacts

· Respect wildlife

· Be considerate of other visitors

Each of these principles can then be applied in various, concrete ways. Planning ahead, for example, includes avoiding the high season that puts particular stress on an environment, traveling in smaller groups, and planning meals that create less waste.

LNT enjoys near-gospel status in the outdoor recreation community, and at organizations like Camp Manito-wish and for good reason. Thousands of people utilize Wisconsin’s trails, lakes, and rivers each summer, so the difference between an average and an exceptional wilderness ethic has far-reaching consequences.

With all of that in mind, is it ever acceptable to not follow LNT?

I think most of us would say yes, particularly when safety is a concern. If a group is caught unexpectedly in cold weather and forced to camp, no one would begrudge them a (safely created) warming fire despite its greater environmental footprint.

The real question, then, is this: how does one decide when a given situation overrides particular LNT applications?

LNT itself is careful to note that it is “best understood as an educational and ethical program, not as a set of rules and regulations.” Its concern is not rigid adherence, but the promotion of a cohesive and sustainable wilderness practice.

Therefore, context matters. It makes a difference whether one is camping on a heavily-used DNR site on Trout Lake or a pristine clearing in Alaska. Campfire practice is a good illustration of this difference.

LNT encourages campers to use stoves instead of campfires because the impact is lower. That said, many northern Wisconsin camps build a lot of campfires in the Northwoods. This is done for a variety of reasons: to teach campers a valuable hard skill, to deters mosquitoes, to carry on a cherished tradition, and to save fuel. Doing so in the established fire rings and bountiful forests of the Northwoods, however, is quite different from unspoiled Alaska. Accordingly, these organizations and many others cook only on stoves for trips such as this.

Along the same lines, LNT encourages campers to return campsites to the most natural state possible, including tossing unused kindling and firewood back into the woods. While many abide by this policy, the campers I led questioned it. On the very popular sites we frequent, they appreciate any firewood left for them by previous inhabitants and consider their own unused firewood a gift to the people who come next.

Actually, I tend to agree. I think my campers recognize that our local campsites are not pristine wilderness. They are more akin to individual plots on a very wide-ranging campground, where daily use is expected. This particular application of LNT is therefore not as relevant for us, whereas it is extremely important in backcountry clearings that are just beginning to show repeated use.

On the whole, then, there may be instances where following the spirit of the “law” of LNT pushes us in a different direction than blindly following the letter of that same law.

That said, if we accept the authority of LNT practice, we need to take it seriously. I can’t just ignore the firewood rule on trail. I have a responsibility to talk through the principle with my campers, explain its goal, and reason through how it applies to our firewood practice for the trip.

In the same way, I think LNT challenges us as a camping staff to use stoves more frequently and intentionally and to explain to our campers the environmental reasons for doing so. We need not eliminate campfire use, but we may be called to moderate it.

We do LNT a disservice when we treat it as manna from heaven and interpret it in a narrow and uncompromising way. But we do it an equal disservice when we carelessly pick and choose from its principles. As with so many things, thoughtful reflection can guide our way forward.

Sara Knutson has been a Trip Leader at Camp Manito-wish YMCA and will be an Administrator in the Outpost Program this summer.

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