Your Campsite Is Destroying Nature

24 Jul

If you made one of the nearly 331 million visits to a national park in 2017, it should be no surprise that getting outside is decidedly in right now. That’s a good thing for our collective health, because recreating in the great outdoors can lead to lots of benefits: improved physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as a desire to help conserve the environment. But the uptick of people hitting the trails over the past several years is not only compromising the overall experience of getting out in nature, it’s also destroying our favorite places.

For 38 years, Jeff Marion, a recreational ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a founding member of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, has studied the impact outdoor enthusiasts have on natural landscapes. Even so, in study after study, including ongoing research by the USGS, Marion continues to be alarmed by how drastically visitors can alter the natural world in a single season.

The Campsite and the Damage Done

Take, for instance, finding that coveted camp spot near the river. In high-use areas, clusters of impromptu campsites can eventually merge into “megasites” that lead to erosion, ruining vegetation, and large swaths of bare soil that increase pollutants in waterways, trigger algae blooms, and affect trout reproduction.

It happens fast. A thriving meadow can transform into a compacted, exposed patch of dirt in as little as ten nights with a tent on top of it, Marion says, and once it’s been used regularly for a season or two, it can take years—sometimes decades—to fully recover. “Impact occurs very quickly,” Marion says, “but restoration is an incredibly slow process.”

Beyond flattening vegetation, campers are also chopping off branches and saplings for campfires in parks, preserves, and wilderness areas despite signage telling them not to. A study of campsites in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness found that half of all campsite trees had been damaged or cut down for firewood. That’s roughly 36,000 tree stumps across 2,000 campsites in the Boundary Waters alone. This level of impact degrades wildlife habitat and significantly alters the natural aesthetics for visitors, creating campsites that can feel wholly removed from the surrounding habitat. What you’re left with, Marion says, are sites that are highly visible and overcrowded and afford very little privacy, all of which takes away from the experience most people set out to have in the first place.

One of the worst examples of this is in Annapolis Rocks, in Maryland, a high-use section of the Appalachian Trail that gives way to sweeping vistas and offers prime real estate for climbers, backpackers, and family campers alike. In 1999, the AT management community deemed it the most degraded campsite on the trail, with 19 individual campsites carving out an average of 2,271 square feet each. The area became a microcosm of all the camping degradation issues Marion was studying—there were 83 damaged trees, 137 tree stumps, and 43,099 square feet of trampled vegetation, more than half of which was exposed soil.

Marion and a team of researchers got to work overhauling Annapolis Rocks in 2002, designing “side-hill” campsites that used natural slopes and topography to create self-contained platforms. The new layout relieved pressure from vegetation and resources while also creating more privacy and reducing the cumulative campsite footprint from 43,099 square feet to 8,574 square feet in less than a decade.

So Do This Instead

While researchers continue to experiment with ways to keep visitors out of sensitive habitat and double down on promoting sustainable recreation practices, it’s crucial for visitors to learn how to navigate natural spaces consciously and with care before they venture onto the trail. Marion says campers and hikers should read up on best practices like they would any other element of their trip—and always check and respect trail signage along the route.

Each wilderness area presents its own unique challenges, but Andrew Leary, the national youth program manager at Leave No Trace, has some hard-and-fast rules for low-impact camping that can be applied just about anywhere.

Instead of laying your tent over wildflower beds or vegetation, opt for a durable surface, like flat compacted soil, sand, or fine gravel that’s at least 200 feet (about 70 big steps) away from a water source. For an extended stay in the backcountry where dispersed camping is permitted, Leary recommends moving your campsite at least 25 to 50 yards every day to another durable surface to reduce the potential for long-term impacts. And if you come across a patch of vegetation that looks gently used from campers, keep walking. It might seem like camping on top of previously used space would reduce the overall footprint, but Leary says that unless it’s a truly trodden patch of grass or meadow, it’s better to let the area heal and find a more suitable spot.

The overall ethos of leave-no-trace camping is more than just packing out your garbage, Leary says. It’s small things like staying on marked trails. It’s resisting the urge to toss crumbs to the chipmunks or pluck the wildflowers along the path. It’s quieting the inner Paul Bunyan, putting down the hatchet, and opting for fallen deadwood to feed the campfire.

And it’s consciously picking out campsites that aren’t just Instagram-worthy but also sustainable.

In 20 Years, Wildfires Will Be Six Times Larger

22 Mar

From Montana to California, wildfires in 2017 shattered record after record and cost the Forest Service an unprecedented $2 billion. The blazes ravaged rural landscapes and business centers and claimed dozens of lives, including those of at least two firefighters. This season’s bone-dry winter conditions in the southern Rockies could set the stage for another taxing fire season in the West. If it’s starting to feel like the weather pendulum is favoring one side of the extreme, that’s because it is.

Over the next two decades, as many as 11 states are predicted to see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent, according to a recent study. That would mean a small fire, say 100 acres, becomes, on average, a 600-acre fire, with Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada expected to increase 700 percent in burn size. It’s a grim picture for future fire seasons—one that might be inevitable, because researchers have been able to check their work from current trends.

Scientists from the University of Arizona, the Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina, and the University of California, Merced, analyzed more than three decades of fire occurrence, seasonal temperatures, and snowpack trends throughout western North America to calculate how climate regulates wildfire. By 2039, the researchers estimate there will be 50 fewer days of snowpack in much of the West and a four-degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature. Both trends will create longer fire seasons that burn much more land.

“This model is essentially saying that fire is going to increase a lot in the interior continental U.S. But that’s only true to a certain point. It’s going to stop being true when those forests can no longer support that kind of fire,” says LeRoy Westerling, a professor of complex systems management at the University of California, Merced, and a co-author of the study. When that happens, the landscape is going to look really different. In less than a generation, drought and fires in western North America could reshape some forests into dry scrublands, where only smaller, water-hardy, and fire-resistant trees thrive.

To check their math, the researchers ran historic climate data from 2004 to 2015 and compared it to their model predictions for 2010 to 2039. The five-year overlap period verified the model’s accuracy. It also showed that every western state where wildfire was expected to at least double by 2039 had already blown past that threshold, suggesting that even the most drastic forecasts for wildfire in the West have probably underestimated the destruction to come.

“Even if we make really major efforts, the truth is a lot of these systems are going to be pushed past the brink by midcentury or soon after,” Westerling says. “That goose has already cooked.”

In California, Dave Shew, a staff chief with the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has already seen a glimpse of what fire seasons of the future could look like for the rest of the western United States. The study’s model suggests California could see anywhere from a 10 to 150 percent increase in area burned by 2039. “It’s gotten to the point now where we’re reluctant to use the term ‘fire season’ because we’re seeing fire impacts running year round now.” When fires were still raging last December, Shew knew the state had entered uncharted territory.

“The amount of destruction that everyone witnessed and the speed at which these events occurred were unbelievable,” Shew says. “We’ve seen big fires, but to have both Northern California and Southern California affected by sieges of this type, almost simultaneously, is unprecedented.”

By the end of 2017, California had witnessed the costliest, longest, deadliest fire season in its history. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to charred moonscapes and, as the Los Angeles Times phrased it, “lonely chimneys.” Now the most populous state in the country is scrambling to stave off an increasingly unpredictable force of nature. From upping controlled burns to incorporating more fire-resistant materials into city planning, like those found in the wildland-urban interface, all options are on the table.

“We wouldn’t traditionally think of needing to build a neighborhood deep inside the city limits with those kinds of building standards. But now officials are considering if those kinds of higher fire-resistant materials should be used in the rebuilding process,” Shew says. “If you look at a neighborhood like Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, very few people—if anyone—anticipated that the community would be at any risk for a wildland fire event, yet it was virtually completely eliminated. We don’t have any reason to believe that these types of events won’t continue to happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

If this study is any indication, the countdown has already begun.