If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Leave No Trace, updated for the digital era

Climbers scrub graffiti off sandstone at
Larrabee State Park. Jason D. Martin photo.

By Jason D. Martin

In 2014, a bandit was on the loose in our public lands. For 26 days, this bandit raced through seven national parks and left her mark – literally – in every one. But this wasn’t an ordinary bandit. This person wasn’t a robber or a raider; she considered herself an artist.

Over 26 days, 23-year-old Casey Nocket traveled through Death Valley, Rocky Mountain, Canyonlands and other iconic national parks painting pictures on rocks and posting photos of her art to Instagram.

The fact that Nocket posted her pictures made it easy for park officials to find her. When they did, she pled guilty to seven misdemeanor charges of injury and depredation of government property. Her sentence? Probation.

It could have been much worse. She could have been fined up to $100,000 per count and gone to jail. Perhaps a harder sentence would have been better. Perhaps it could have been a warning to other potential vandals. And perhaps such a sentence could have stopped someone from defacing another beautiful place.

On December 24, a Utah couple posted an image on the @aprildaisy Instagram account noting that they had carved their names into the rock at Lake Powell in Utah. And while the owner of the account was chastised across the internet, it’s still too early to see what – if anything – the authorities will do.

It’s uncommon for public land managers to capture vandals, but they commonly have to clean up after them. Graffiti removal is an arduous task done every day on our public lands by dedicated employees and volunteers.

In northwestern Washington, we’re not immune. There’s rock graffiti in the Sehome Arboretum in Bellingham, throughout the Chuckanut Mountains, and at Mt. Erie in Anacortes. On Easter Sunday 2017, the Access Fund sponsored a graffiti clean-up day at Larrabee State Park. A dozen volunteers donned rubber gloves and protective glasses and scrubbed the rocks with wire brushes and an acidic solvent lovingly called elephant snot. It was hard work and the results were mixed; some paint soaks so deeply that it is nearly impossible to remove.

There’s something within us that wants to prove we were here. Some do this by carving names into trees or by painting rocks. Others do this by taking photos and posting them on social media. Others name trails, climbing routes or ski runs. Each of these fulfills this inner need to prove our existence, but each of these things can also have a detrimental impact on the land.

It should be obvious that painting rocks and carving trees are inappropriate ways to interact with public lands. Most Mount Baker Experience readers are probably well aware of this, but other aspects of Leave No Trace aren’t always so obvious.

Social media use is increasingly under fire for overpopulating delicate areas and impacting wildlife. Many social media users geotag the locations of some of their most beautiful shots, which has increased impact on select trails and viewpoints. Places that used to host a few visitors a day now see hundreds.

Maybe the experience is richer when people are forced to do their own research.

Last year, Outside magazine proposed an addition to the Leave No Trace (lnt.org) principles: “Don’t do it for the ‘gram.” In other words, maybe it’s best not to tag the locations of all your best shots. Maybe it’s better to be discreet. Maybe the experience is richer when people are forced to do their own research. Additionally, some people do really dangerous things to get that perfect shot and hundreds of people have now died taking selfies. This should be obvious but getting a selfie with a snake in your hand or sitting on the back of a grizzly cub isn’t really that good for your health or the animal.

This social media affect can happen through the naming and posting of routes, whether they be trails, ski runs or climbs. There’s no doubt that this is a more complex issue than the last. Often those who are first to explore a specific location have a strong understanding of the larger area. In some cases, it’s better to focus everyone in one area. In other cases, it’s better to disperse crowds over a large area. As such, it’s important for trail and route developers – as well as guidebook authors and travel writers – to think carefully about the area that they might promote before publishing.

Graffiti has been around forever, but social media and the internet have not. It’s easy to see how chipping one’s name into a rock has a serious impact, but it’s not always easy to see how posting a picture of an obscure place can – in some cases – have just as serious an impact. To keep our wild places wild and to avoid over-regulation, we have to be cognizant of all of these issues.

We have to literally leave no trace.

Leave No Trace is a wilderness stewardship philosophy. The seven principals were developed to help backcountry users mitigate their impacts on wild places. They provide us with solid guidelines that are easy for most to use. Following are the principles and a short description of each. For more information, log onto lnt.org.

1. Plan ahead and prepare

Plan your route. Make sure you have the proper clothing and equipment and that someone knows where you’re going.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Stay on trails. Avoid cutting switchbacks. Camp on pre-impacted sites.

3. Dispose of waste properly

Deal with human waste appropriately. Either bury it or pack it out. Pack out food waste and litter.

4. Leave what you find

Leave flowers and plants for others to enjoy. Don’t take arrowheads, potsherds (pieces of pottery) or other artifacts. The real joy is in finding these kinds of things. They lose their value when taken out of context.

5. Minimize campfire impacts

Use a camp-stove and avoid making camp fires if possible. Keep fires small and use established fire rings. Respect burn bans. Burn all wood and coals to ash and put out fires completely.

6. Respect wildlife

Do not harass wildlife by trying to get close to it. Don’t feed wildlife. Control pets or leave them at home.

7. Be considerate of other visitors

Think about how other people experience the outdoors and try not to impact their enjoyment.

In 2018, Outside magazine proposed three additional principles:

1. Don’t do it for the ‘gram

Avoid geotagging and checking in at specific locations. Be wary of naming specific trails or features, if possible.

2. Minimize personal pollution

Not everyone enjoys your drone or the music you’re playing. Leave most of your technology at home.

3. Give back

Consider joining an advocacy, environmental or conservation group. Consider donating time by doing trail work, litter cleanups or graffiti removal. Consider donating money to an organization of this type.

Jason D. Martin is the executive director at the American Alpine Institute, a mountain guide and a widely published outdoor writer. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two kids.